The coronavirus outbreak has turned everyone’s worlds upside down. We are constantly being told information which can be a lot to process. The main focus is how to keep ourselves and others safe. As the UK government has changed its message to ‘Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives’ it has meant that people are now less likely to stay home, from having to go to work to socially distancing with a friend. The government is not telling people that they need to wear masks. But their advice is for people to wear masks when in enclosed places with others, such as on public transport. Wearing a mask will mainly protect those around you by blocking some of the droplets that are expelled from your mouth. This can be through coughing, sneezing or even just talking. It is important to stay as cautious as possible as you may be a carrier/asymptomatic, which could cause harm to others without you knowing.
The coronavirus has also brought with it questions about sustainability. Many medical products are one use, and need to be binned straight away to avoid contamination. So what masks can you use that are sustainable, and how can we ensure we are as safe as possible?
Bought Reusable Masks
With a greater number and variety of masks available, getting well made reusable masks is most likely a safest sustainable choice. But it is imperative that they are used correctly, washed properly and disposed of responsibly. Also as these masks are not medical grade, we must not become complacent. But by using reusable masks you are not only being more sustainable, but you are also not using surgical masks, which are in short supply, but are needed for health-care workers, meaning it is the most socially responsible choice.
These masks should contain multiple layers or fabric and be a fit that is tight to your face. Having a mask with a filter layer means that there is an extra level of protection and the filter can be replaced. The materials of these masks will most likely be cotton, or a similar fabric. Cotton is much more sustainable than plastic, but it still undergoes an intensive environmental cost during its growth due to its water consumption. So it is important to make the product last as long as possible, while staying safe. Be careful when cleaning the mask after use. It should not get damaged or change shape after being washed and dried.
When fitting the mask make sure it is as tight to the face as possible. When you are outside refrain from touching or adjusting your mask. Then when you come home clean it as soon as possible, and make sure it does not contaminate any other belongings. Each mask will be different, so perhaps check with the manufacturer, but wash the mask on a fairly high heat. You can wash your masks, along with your clothes, in the washing machine. It will also be beneficial to use a cleaning product that says it is antibacterial, but normal soap and water will most likely suffice. Using a hot setting on your washing machine neutralises the microbes, and then letting the mask dry in direct sun or in the dryer will eradicate any remaining pathogens on the mask.
Another benefit of buying ready made reusable masks is that you will be helping someone. In a time where many people have lost their jobs, or are struggling financially, buying from an independent or small business can benefit them hugly. Many companies are now using their factories to turn their production into making face masks such as Vistaprint. Some other places that are selling environmentally friendly masks include; Florence Bridge, Saborka and Reformation, but also have a look on sites such as Etsy at smaller creatives.
Homemade Reusable Masks
We are able to make masks at home, as any face covering will be beneficial in some way. Although these masks are not medical grade due to their construction and porosity, they can help contain droplets. The same rules apply as the bought reusable mask options. Be wary when wearing them, try to only use them once, and clean them efficiently as soon as possible. At home masks are typically sewn fabric, and are washable and reusable. As you are able to use materials from around your home this could be a quick and cost effective option. If the materials you use were also destined for the bin, it’s also a great way to upcycle. Things you could upcycle include; a t-shirt, pillowcases, pyjamas, tote bags and tea towels. In fact a 2013 study found tea towels had one the best filtration efficiency from materials found within everyday items within the home.
It is beneficial to make a mask which consists of multiple layers, for extra filtration. An example could be a tightly woven cotton with two layers of polyester-based chiffon, cotton-polyester flannel or silk. For extra protection you could perhaps create a filter to place inside the mask which is made from HEPA, which is able to block out around 80% of fine particles. These filters can be washed and recycled. This material can be bought, but is commonly found in hoover bags, just look out for HEPA being mentioned. Just make sure that the mask is comfortable for you to wear and you are able to breathe properly.
There are many different tutorials available online, the environmental group Greenpeace has released a materials list and instructions on how to make different masks to suit your face shape etc. These are generally from upcycled materials and include no-sew options.
Disposable Medical Masks
The single use surgical masks that we can see used as PPE by health-care workers and some members of the public are generally made from non-woven polypropylene. This means that they are not considered recyclable, and people are advised to throw them away in landfill. These masks can also take a long time to degrade, leaving microplastics behind. The best versions of these masks are 3-ply, due to their ability to filter the virus. These consist of a waterproof front and back layer, and a sub-micron pore-sized non-woven fabric middle layer. It is imperative that you fit these masks properly. Leaving gaping sides can mean the droplets can not be contained.
Many health officials suggest the public should not wear these masks as it is best to keep them for health-care workers as these are medical grade, and are in high demand.
Those in high risk environments and those working with infected people, such as in intensive care, use N95 respirator masks. These are the most protective masks as they are tight-fitting, and are able to block out most particles. These masks are apparently recyclable, but in many places people are being told not to recycle them. Instead there is now an effort to clean and reuse them due to PPE shortages. Technology that was originally developed to sanitize fruit and vegetables is now being used in places such as Canada that was developed by Clean Works, a factory that used to sanitize apples.
Innovations in Face Masks
Due to the increase in demand many designers and companies are trying to improve existing face masks, and also trying to make them more sustainable.
Japanese TBM and Bioworks have developed Bio Face, which is a washable and reusable face mask made of PLA (polylactic acid), a biomass-based renewable material. The PLA used is made from biomass resources such as corn starch, and biodegrades in industrial compost environments. These masks have antibacterial qualities and are washable/reusable. They are also a continuous piece of material, constructed with the face shape in mind. The mask is knitted three dimensionally with the WHOLEGARMENT machine, which means that it is less likely to break, is closer to the face and comfortable to wear.
Elizabeth Bridges and Garrett Benisch of Sum Studio have created a speculative microbial cellulose face mask. These grown transparent filtration masks are made from the cellulose layer grown during kombucha fermentation. The cellulose fibers make up a tight knit, which could make it usable as a mask. But their tightness could also mean that it may not be easy to breathe through. However, this project shows us what we can create at home and with development whether accessible bio-based materials could be used to make masks more sustainable.
Although many of these types of masks are currently not available due to development or the fact they were created to give inspiration, they show that there are ways to be more sustainable while living in a pandemic.