The Covid-19 pandemic has made face masks and other personal protective equipment essential for healthcare workers. Disposable N95 masks became the key requirement to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But the wide use of these masks has both financial and environmental costs.
The pandemic is estimated to generate over 7,000 tons of medical waste each day and much of that is in the form of disposable masks. Even though the pandemic has slowed down in many places, health care workers are continuing to wear masks most of the time.
A new study at MIT has looked at the financial and environmental cost of several different mask usage scenarios with an eye on trying to reduce the toll created by the continued need for using them.
If every health care worker in the US used a new N95 mask for each patient they encountered during the first six months of the pandemic, the total number of masks required would be over 7 billion, at a cost of over $6 billion and would generate 92,000 tons of waste (the equivalent of 252 Boeing 747 jets.)
Decontaminating regular N95 masks so that health care workers can wear them for more than one day could drop costs and environmental waste by at least 75% compared with using a new mask for every patient encounter.
Fully reusable N95 masks could offer an even greater reduction in waste, but such masks are not yet commercially available. MIT researchers are developing a reusable N95 mask made of silicone rubber that contains an N95 filter than can either be discarded or sterilized after use. They have started a new company with the goal of commercializing the masks.
The environmental toll of disposable masks
Photo, posted August 4, 2020, courtesy of the U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jake Greenberg via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.