We know from science that wearing face masks helps prevents the spread of Covid. If they fit tightly around the nose and mouth, they can help protect both the wearer and others around them, so the question is what is the best material to use in masks?

Single-use disposable masks are the most common but are actually an environmental hazard in several ways. They are manufactured using a three or four-layer process. Most of the material is a form of polypropylene plastic that is melted and spun or blown into fine fibers to provide the air filtration needed, while still allowing the wearer to breathe. That layer is covered on each side with a woven or non-woven, usually also man-made fabric. Between them, those materials deliver a large quantity of microfibers when we dispose of them. If the exhaust is not properly scrubbed, even burning them spreads nasty chemicals and particulates. Such masks mostly work well in the healthcare system, where staff has to exchange masks constantly, and hospitals have their own systems to dispose of contaminated trash properly.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has estimated that global sales of disposable face masks will increase from about $800 million in 2019 to about $166 billion this year. They also note that, if historical data is any indicator, about 75% of the masks will end up in landfills or the oceans. That makes them a potential source of a large increase in microplastic fibers in the environment.

To counter the threat, the World Health Organization recommends cloth masks for the general population, except where underlying conditions or high risk dictate medical-grade protection.

Cloth masks should contain multiple layers of cloth for the best protection. They should always be worn with the same side in, and need to be washed after each use. A trip through the washing machine has been shown to totally remove any virus that might be on the mask. There is no limit to the number of times a cloth mask can be washed.

Cloth masks are inexpensive, since you only buy them once, or they can be easily made at home. Easy patterns and instructions are available from YouTube and other places on the web, and some do not even require sewing. Worn properly, so that they cover both the mouth and the nose at all times, and keeping them as tight as possible will provide you with the protection we all seek. Some places, such as Parkview Medical Center have even offered free cloth masks in their lobby.

No mask is completely safe and secure, so social distancing is still a vital part of our virus protection protocols, but a well-fitted cloth mask is generally a better choice for our wallets and our environment.

The Recycle Bin is a weekly question and answer column on what to recycle, what not to recycle, and why, in Brunswick. The public is encouraged to submit questions by email to [email protected]. Harry Hopcroft is a member of the Brunswick Recycling and Sustainability Committee. 

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