Mask off: The Potential for Environmental Impacts from the COVID-19 Pandemic

An undertone of the world’s mobilization in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is the widespread, often mandated donning of facemasks. Masks have been identified by the medical community and experts as one of the most cost-effective and widely available solutions to curbing community infection rates (flattening the curve).

Controversy has surrounded masks in the United States largely from inconsistencies from leadership, political affiliations, and general mistrust—especially in the early pandemic. One issue that is undeniable is that the increased production, use and disposal of masks (especially those made with plastic) has the potential to pollute the environment and disrupt natural, foundational ecosystems.

Figure 1 from (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020)

Disposable face masks are produced from polymers like polyurethane, polypropylene, polyester, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, etc. The spinning of nanofibers for production draws many parallels to processes employed across the fashion industry in manufacturing synthetic clothing and products.

How is this relevant? Plastic pollution is silently accumulating in the Earth’s land, waterways and consequently, ecosystems. This stream of waste into the environment has the potential to impact crucial aspects of terrestrial and aquatic trophic systems. The introduction and subsequent breakdown of polymers of masks in the environment has the potential to increase microplastic pollution in natural environments, a problem already intimately linked with both the fashion and petroleum industry. Microplastics may be ingested by aquatic organisms making their way into the trophic levels of an ecosystem—until potentially ending up on your plate.

The issues surrounding plastic pollution go far beyond masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective disposal, waste systems, recycling infrastructure and potential policy intervention could remedy the challenges we face but most importantly; consumers need to understand the ramifications of every action taken.

What can be done? Make, wear and wash reusable masks (e.g. cotton) if necessary, recycle where possible, and do your best to stay informed about the materials found in products and their sources, and as a no brainer—don’t litter.

How would you close the loop for plastic waste?


Anderson Abel de Souza Machado, Chung Wai Lau, Jennifer Till, Werner Kloas, Anika Lehmann, Roland Becker, and Matthias C. Rillig. Impacts of Microplastics on the Soil Biophysical Environment. Environmental Science & Technology 201852 (17), 9656-9665DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02212

Aragaw, Tadele Assefa. “Surgical Face Masks As A Potential Source For Microplastic Pollution In The COVID-19 Scenario”. Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol 159, 2020, p. 111517. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2020.111517.

Dris, R., Gasperi, J., Saad, M., Mirande, C., & Tassin, B. (2016). Synthetic fibers in atmospheric fallout: A source of microplastics in the environment?. Marine Pollution Bulletin104(1-2), 290-293.

Fadare, Oluniyi O., and Elvis D. Okoffo. “Covid-19 Face Masks: A Potential Source Of Microplastic Fibers In The Environment”. Science Of The Total Environment, vol 737, 2020, p. 140279. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140279.

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