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Cover Up: The True Environmental Cost of Face Masks

Posted by Viv Wilson on

The face of the Coronavirus pandemic wouldn’t be without a mask. The item has quickly become a world-recognised emblem in the fight against this deadly disease, and has demonstrated a capability in restricting the transmission of the infected respiratory droplets that become airborne when you speak.

And whilst this form of protection has many differing styles, there are some that remain far worse, in an environmental sense, than others. The long term impact of mass producing certain components of particular face masks are yet to been fully realised.

Here we draw attention to the most popular kind of common face mask: the surgical face mask. Pre-Corona, this IIR-type mask was rarely seen outside the boundaries of a medical environment. Their disposable one-use nature and fabrication represents the original intention to their use.

Typically, the actual covering part of the mask, the main body, is formed from three layers; the outer, middle and inner layers. The first and last two are created using Non-Woven Polypropylene; a thermoplastic polymer that can fully recycled and made into other items. They’re separated by an equally recyclable middle layer of melt-blown fabric; the central piece responsible for the filtration of air.

These are supported either side by two elasticated fibre ear loops, and bridged by a nose clamp; a consistent iron wire covered with a plastic coating. It is this concealed wire that allows the mask to be shaped to the individual curvature of the nose. However, it is also one of the most environmentally catastrophic features of the overall item.

The exponential rise in demand for ready-to-wear face covering convenience has sent the production of these 10.5cm plastic-coated iron rods into overdrive. And where want goes, waste will surely follow. It is the promoted disposability of this once unfamiliar item that has been slowly cutting its way into our environment; whether they are disposed of responsibly or otherwise. Not every mask and every iron rod will find its way to a recycling plant. The excess will instead filter their way into our water systems, landfills and oceans.

And sadly, these slender iron rods will never fully decompose, but will rather flake away slowly into their surroundings; a process that could take up to many hundreds of years, and cause irreversible damage to the environment. One leading contributing factor that propels such negative externalities forward is surgical mask’s one-use nature. But the effects of which can be curbed if we move in the right direction against the matter.

SMUG Face Covering SetThere are a plethora of alternatives to the IIR surgical face mask that are both wire-free and reusable; and they’re just as capable as protecting you from the virus. One such alternative that uses design instead of material to curve to the shape of the wearer’s face are the Face Coverings recently released by our sister brand SMUG (available in our Shop). Launched in 5 pastel tones, and with fully adjustable straps for added security, SMUG have promoted this product as a sustainable alternative to more dangerously expendable face coverings; providing full support to their customers in the use and upkeep of the mask.

We may have not chosen to encounter the likes of Coronavirus, but we’re still capable of choosing sustainability, resourcefulness and consideration in our approach to keeping ourselves and others safe.


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