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Addressing the environmental impact of disposable masks

During the height of the COVID pandemic, and even now when some countries seem to see light at the end of the tunnel, disposable masks are more expensive and harder to find due to increased demand.

It should come as no surprise that all those little paper products wreak havoc on the environment, especially with more of them circulating than ever before.  

The pandemic is responsible for an estimated 7,200 tons of medical waste every day. Much of that waste comes in the form of disposable masks. Even now, many healthcare workers must wear masks at all times during work. 

A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that financial and environmental costs could be drastically reduced by switching to reusable masks. 

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, the approaches that incorporate reusable aspects stand to have not only the greatest cost savings, but also significant reduction in waste,” explained study senior author Professor Giovanni Traverso.

“Our vision was that if we had a reusable system, we could reduce the cost. The majority of disposable masks also have a significant environmental impact, and they take a very long time to degrade.”

 “During a pandemic, there’s a priority to protect people from the virus, and certainly that remains a priority, but for the longer term, we have to catch up and do the right thing, and strongly consider and minimize the potential negative impact on the environment.”

The experts have been developing reusable silicone masks with filters that are disposable or can be sterilized after exposure as a way to reduce cost, environmental impact and as a response to short supplies. 

Ultimately, the researchers envision a system like this becoming more widespread as a way to protect people with less environmental impact and fincancial cost.  

“Masks are here to stay for the foreseeable future, so it’s critical that we incorporate sustainability into their use, as well as the use of other disposable personal protective equipment that contribute to medical waste,” said study lead author Dr. Jacequline Chu.

The study is published in the British Medical Journal Open.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer


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