Virus Outbreak-Viral Questions-Masks

Is it better to wear an N95 or cloth mask right now? (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

Since writing last week’s column on masks, A friend who does group dancing and some heavier exercising has shared with me some new research that expands nicely on what we know about face coverings and COVID.

As I noted, most of the highly recommended masks, whatever their makeup, are disposable, not recyclable, and recyclable is really what we’re about here. Those masks, whether they are truly single-use, or are actually able to be used multiple times, eventually go into the trash. That would be bad enough, but many too many of them are simply tossed away, where they become an enormous environmental hazard.

That leaves us with two places to go. Several studies, including the ones I cited last week and one as late as Jan, 2022 in the New York Times, have shown that, in a normal, residential user environment, any of the better masks can be worn multiple times before being discarded. Left alone, the viruses can only survive for about 72 hours, according to the studies. So, especially when we don’t wear them all day long, we can have four or five and safely rotate them on a daily basis. There is evidently no magic maximum number of times we can reuse a mask in this fashion, but I find the designated single use ones that people give away tend to fall apart after a couple of uses. The better KN95 masks I talked about can each serve me for many more uses in short doses, such as visits to the grocery store. I just keep one in my coat pocket.

The second interesting way to go is to re-examine cloth masks. Initially, these were found to be much less effective than the disposable masks at blocking the aerosols they are designed to stop. They fit poorly, and they simply did not filter well.

That, however, has greatly improved. In January 2022, a New York Times/Wirecutter (the NYT’s product testing group) study that was shared with me revealed several cloth masks that work as well as any disposable product, and offer several additional benefits. For heavy users like dancers or people doing workouts, hiking, or other such activities, the cloth masks are much more breathable, and certainly much more comfortable to wear as well. Both the Enro Tech Mask, and the “Curv” by Happy Mask Pro got very high grades on all tests of effectiveness, fit and comfort.

Both types are more adjustable than most disposable masks, and either can evidently be washed hundreds of times without degrading their filtration abilities.

The downside to the better cloth masks is mostly its upfront cost. In order to wear them regularly, we need to do a couple of things. One is to have several for each person in the household. The second is to wash the masks on a regular basis. It has been known for a long time that a trip through the washing machine and either sun drying or machine drying the mask will destroy any lingering viruses, but it has to actually be done for that to happen. Either way, they are an expensive proposition in the beginning. Aside from the environmental questions, of course, the real calculation involves two questions. Will we wear them more if they are more comfortable? Will we get enough more time out of the cloth to pay for the extra cost?

If you’re going to use the mask heavily, or for extended periods, the cloth mask is worth a close look.

The Recycle Bin is a weekly column on what to recycle, what not to recycle, and why, in Brunswick. The public is encouraged to submit questions by email to Harry Hopcroft is a member of the Brunswick Recycling and Sustainability Committee, though his opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the committee.

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