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Wasted in Bend: Single-Use Face Masks

Protection from COVID creates new source of microplastics

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Editor's note: Wasted in Bend was a series we rolled out in the year before the pandemic, highlighting the waste stream and how locals can make choices to improve it. The intermittent series returns this week with a look at a timely pandemic-related waste problem.

The more life returns to a post-pandemic version of normal, the easier it is to move on from the worries of COVID. Except, that is, for one unmistakable reminder found on sidewalks and trails throughout Central Oregon: the disposable face mask. During the pandemic, they played a critical role in helping us keep our germs to ourselves. Now, single-use masks have become the new poster child for the tsunami of COVID-related plastic trash.

A new villian lurks among us—single-use face masks that wreck the ecosystem. - SUZANNE JOHNSON
  • Suzanne Johnson
  • A new villian lurks among us—single-use face masks that wreck the ecosystem.

"We're still sweeping them up every single day," said Ryan Currence of the Downtown Bend Business Association. Currence heads up the team that keeps downtown streets clean and flowerpots tended. When shops and restaurants reopened for business, Currence and his team noticed a new addition to the usual street litter: those ubiquitous pleated rectangles of blue and white polyester with elastic ear loops. "We find them on every single street we sweep—maybe a dozen or so," he said.

Turning back the tide of plastic waste

Back in January of 2020, public support was helping slow the tide of single-use plastics: Coffee shops encouraged bring-your-own mugs, bars replaced plastic straws with paper and the Oregon plastic bag ban made us all stock up on reusable tote bags. By March, fear of viral transmission made disposable plastics feel safer and more sanitary than reusables. Along with a resurgence in plastic takeout packaging and antiseptic wipes, single-use face masks became part of our daily wardrobes (despite the heroic efforts of local sewers, who contributed over 5,000 handmade reusable cloth masks).

Just how many masks are out there? The numbers are mind boggling. Researchers estimate that 129 billion disposable masks were used globally each month of the pandemic. Factories in China churned out 12 times the average annual production of single-use masks. The World Wildlife Fund estimated that at least 1% of those masks landed on streets or trails instead of in secure trash bins. And according to the nonprofit organization Oceans Asia, over 1.56 billion face masks have already washed into the oceans—adding up to over 5,000 tons of floating ocean trash.

An increase in face mask litter on Oregon beaches was noted by SOLVE, a Portland-based organization that mobilizes volunteers for cleanup and restoration events around the state.

"Our volunteers have picked up more face masks at each event," said Larissa Gordon, communications and outreach director at SOLVE. "Face masks have become a sign of the times. So many people are getting outside, which is great, but it's so easy to let masks blow away or fall out of pockets," she added.

To swing the momentum back toward reusables, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley has co-sponsored a bill to minimize the volume of disposable plastic packaging. The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act would reduce production levels, shift recycling responsibility to the producers and address toxic emissions. Yet one non-recyclable plastic product will not be included in the ban (yep, you guessed it) ... the disposable face mask. According to Merkley's communications staff, face masks are considered medical items, which are not targeted in this bill.

Masks and microplastics

The problem with disposable masks goes deeper than unsightly litter. These masks feel like paper, but the material is synthetic and not biodegradable. Most are made from woven layers of polymer micro-fibers, such as polypropylene or polyurethane. The same qualities that make these fibers work as effective and breathable filters also create an environmental challenge—especially once they wash into rivers.

Synthetic polymers never biodegrade, but they do shed tiny bits of fiber known as microplastics or nanoplastics. Any plastic eventually can break down into microplastics, but these soft, flexible fibers shed particles more rapidly than plastics like straws or grocery bags. Sunlight and water accelerate the shedding and send more microplastics into the environment. Aquatic insects and fish larvae mistake the particles for food, and the plastic concentrates as it moves up the food chain.

Do the microplastics shed by face masks spread disease? The Center for Disease Control estimates that the COVID virus can survive on mask fibers for up to a week—if the mask is kept in a controlled environment. Outside, sunlight and humidity effectively kill the virus. SOLVE volunteers use gloves and litter-grabber tools to pick up face masks and other trash during cleanup events.

Reducing the impact of single-use face masks

Oregon's face mask mandate has ended, but masks are part of the new normal. When single-use face masks are needed, disposing of them properly is the key to reducing the environmental impact.

Reducing microplastics from face masks can be as simple as choosing a reusable fabric mask. Plant-based materials like cotton or bamboo will biodegrade naturally and do not shed microplastics. Cloth masks can be washed and reused indefinitely and still effectively prevent viral spread. Some single-use, disposable face masks replace synthetic fibers with cellulose, a plant-based and biodegradable material that offers anti-microbial qualities.

Locally, volunteers interested in cleaning up masks and other litter from the Deschutes River can join the 25th annual Deschutes River Cleanup on July 31 from 10am to 1 pm. Contact the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council for more information.

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