The coronavirus pandemic has radically changed our daily lives over the past year. One change that is here to stay is the ubiquitous use of disposable face masks for health and hygiene purposes. Disposable masks have become a necessity when going out in public to help curb the spread of the virus. Their use and popularity have surged tremendously globally due to COVID-19.
Emergence as the New Normal
Before the pandemic, disposable face masks were rarely worn by the general public. They were mainly used in medical settings and by those who were sick. However, over the last year, disposable masks have emerged as the new normal whenever one leaves their home. Health agencies worldwide now recommend wearing a mask in indoor public spaces or when social distancing isn’t possible. Most states and cities in countries like the US now have mask mandates in place for shops and public transport. Popular consensus also views wearing a mask as a social responsibility towards protecting others. As a result, masks are now a staple fashion accessory around the world alongside keys and wallets.
Mass Market Boom
With mask mandates and guidelines promoting their widespread use, the demand for Disposable Face Masks Share has exploded tremendously. Major retailers have struggled to keep masks on shelves to meet consumer demands. Disposable masks were an $800 million market in 2019 but grew over 200% to reach $2.4 billion by the end of 2020. Most of this demand is driven by the general public bulk buying packs of disposable masks for personal and household use during the pandemic. Manufacturers have ramped up their production capacity significantly to meet the constant shortages being reported at stores. Experts believe the market will likely remain elevated for the foreseeable future even after the pandemic ends given their new-found mainstream use.
While offering protection against viruses, the surge in disposable mask usage has brought significant environmental concerns into focus. Researchers estimate that around 129 billion masks were used globally each month in 2020 which equates to around 3 million masks per minute. Most of these are NOT being properly disposed and are instead littering streets and oceans or ending up in landfills. These masks are primarily made of plastic materials like polypropylene which can take hundreds of years to decompose. With global mask production outpacing waste management infrastructure’s abilities, masks have become one of the most commonly found pieces of PPE polluting both urban and marine environments. Several grassroots movements have started across major cities to organize mask clean-up drives to address the growing volume of discarded PPE. However, a long term solution needs to be made on a policy level to promote sustainable mask alternatives and waste management practices to curb this emerging environmental threat.
The Role of Reusable Masks
While disposable masks serve an important purpose in limiting virus spread, their short lifecycle and poor disposal raise serious ecological concerns. Reusable cloth masks present a more sustainable alternative that is gaining traction. Made from cotton, silk or synthetic fabrics, these masks can be washed and reused multiple times, reducing the need for constant disposable mask use. Some municipalities have even started initiatives promoting reuse by setting up mask collection bins where used cloth masks can be laundered and redistributed. Reusable masks are also more cost effective in the long run compared to continuously purchasing packs of disposables. With proper washing techniques after each use, studies have found that reusable masks can effectively limit virus transmission similar to medical grade disposables. While not as convenient, they offer a more eco-friendly solution to reduce dependence on environmentally stressful disposables over the long term. Mask manufacturers have also started developing reusable, washable products with multiple layers of filtration to match the performance of single-use options. This helps encourage public adoption of sustainable masking practices.
Adapting to the New Normal
There is no doubt that face masks have become a fixture of our current reality over the past year. As cases remain high globally, health experts project masks will continue playing an important role even in a post-pandemic world especially during flu seasons. While inconvenient, masks offer tremendous health benefits by reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses. However, we must be mindful of the environmental footprint created by their mass production and consumption. A balanced approach is needed – adopting reusable masks where possible while reserving disposables only for the highest risk situations. Governments also need to invest in sustainable waste management infrastructure and policies to limit pollution from pandemic generated trash like masks. With collective efforts, we can adapt to masked living more responsibly by taking the planet into account alongside public health priorities. Mask usage isn’t going away anytime soon but by embracing reusable options, we can protect both people and the environment going forward into an uncertain future.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented surge in demand and use of disposable face masks globally over the past year. While offering crucial protection, this has raised serious ecological concerns from their improper disposal that needs urgent solutions. Reusable masks present a more sustainable alternative to limit dependence on wasteful single-use options long term if production and usage practices can incentivize their widespread adoption. Governments also must invest in waste management infrastructure to curb pollution from pandemic generated trash like disposable masks. A balanced approach balancing health and environmental priorities is critical to support masked living responsibly as we adapt to the virus’s new normal.
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it