We Should All Be Using Reusable Masks

A new campaign urges the general public to consider the environment when choosing PPE.

homemade cloth masks on a line

 Homemade cloth masks hang on a line.
@JulieK via Twenty20 

The world is a very different place today than it was a year ago. Thanks to the coronavirus, people are now strongly urged or required to wear masks in many enclosed public spaces in the United States and Canada, while governments and public health officials hope that such measures (along with proper hand hygiene and extensive sanitization) will slow transmission rates and get the pandemic under control.

This has led to a flurry of purchasing. All of a sudden we are the owners of masks – masks in our purses, diaper bags, pockets, gym bags. They're hanging from rearview mirrors and coat racks. They're in every garbage can, and around them, too. I've seen them lying flattened on sidewalks, beside public benches, and even on the beach and in the usually-pristine waters of Lake Huron where I live. They're everywhere, and the mask-wearing mandates are still brand new. Imagine what it will be like in a year or two.

What's the Solution? Wear Reusable Masks. 

This is the focal point of a new campaign by members of the European Plastics & Health Task Force, together with Break Free From Plastic. Its goal is to "encourage the general public to wear reusable masks, and wash their hands with soap and water, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to protect people and the planet." Continuing to throw away disposable masks at the current rate is simply not a feasible option from an environmental perspective.

Cloth masks are just as effective as disposable masks and are condoned by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, particularly when used together with social distancing and good hand-washing routines. The campaign encourages people to wash hands before and after putting on a mask. Masks must be washed regularly with soap or detergent and can be sanitized by boiling for 10 minutes. Clean, dry masks should be stored in a clean place (i.e. envelope) until ready to use.

 cloth mask safety instructions

Moving away from disposable personal protective equipment is crucial if we are to avert a COVID waste crisis, and it starts with individuals like you and me choosing cloth masks over disposable ones. Let's not allow a health crisis to turn into an even bigger pollution crisis.

Katherine Martinko, August 2020