Face masks: the other face behind the protective barrier against COVID-19

A young biotechnology engineer explains the impacts of face mask waste
Profile picture of Maye (not her real name)

Created by Maye (not her real name)

Published on Apr 22, 2022
Face Mask floating in the ocean

It is no secret to anybody that the pandemic brought with it the use of facemasks worldwide as a protective barrier against COVID-19, aiming to control the disease and the rate of infection in the population. Even in countries like Colombia, the use of facemasks is still mandatory for closed places. However, as a society, we have wondered what the environmental fate of the large amount of waste generated due to the pandemic is.

Facemasks are made of plastic, mainly polyethylene! Yes, more pollution. The masks have greater durability because they are resistant to liquids and after our use, their usual final destination is the open seas. Data from the NGO Oceans Asia revealed that during the first year of the pandemic, 1.56 billion facemasks ended up in the oceans and it is estimated that their decomposition could take up to 400 years (Bondaroff & S., 2020).

A lot of information circulated through the different media for the proper use of facemasks in times of COVID, but now, little to no information is disclosed about the correct disposal of facemasks. Their incorrect disposal brings negative impacts to the environment such as soil and water contamination. In these habitats, animals can ingest the masks by mistake, leading to their deaths. Although we’ve already seen heartbreaking images of species affected by plastic waste, single-use personal protection elements (such as face masks) used during the pandemic could worsen the issue of plastic pollution. Therefore, the proper management of waste in developing countries turns out to be quite a challenge, since according to recent research, 82% of the plastic waste generated during the COVID contingency will come from low- and middle-income countries, places where there is no effective waste management. This includes Colombia which has the 22nd place for estimated daily COVID-19 facemasks and global plastic waste generation. (Benson et al., 2021).

Many people, during this time of the pandemic, throw face masks into the street and bodies of water or even dispose of them together with organic household waste without properly separating them. This, in addition to harming the environment, also affected the spread of the virus, since studies showed that SARS-CoV-2 was viable for up to 3 days on plastic surfaces, that is, in biomedical waste (Rume & Islam, 2020).

It is important that governments worldwide initiate a campaign to promote the proper method of separation, handling and disposal of this plastic waste. Additionally, it is necessary to provide support to companies that have taken the initiative to collect, disinfect and reuse masks (@sermarea_movimiento, in Colombia) to prevent them from reaching the sea. However, these spectacular movements are slowed down by government health procedures and permits. Which is somewhat paradoxical, right?! Instead of everyone (government, industry and people) working for initiatives like these to go ahead, and help us combat pollution.

As young citizens, we must inform ourselves about what actions we can implement from home to give “trash masks” a second chance at life and actually take ownership of the fight against pollution. Let's spread knowledge in conversations with our closest core (family, friends, neighbors) so that we all know the causes that are facing this problem and we can even sow the seeds of change in the most sceptical people about the environmental problem and the consequences that we are already seeing all over the world.


Benson, N. U., Bassey, D. E., & Palanisami, T. (2021). COVID pollution: impact of COVID-19 pandemic on global plastic waste footprint. Heliyon, 7(2), e06343. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e06343

Bondaroff, T. P., & S., C. (2020). Masks on the Beach: The impact of Covid-19 on Marine Palstic Pollution. In Oceansasia.

Rume, T., & Islam, S. M. D. U. (2020). Environmental effects of COVID-19 pandemic and potential strategies of sustainability. Heliyon, 6(9), e04965. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e04965

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