The pandemic has added to the trash that we have dumped on the planet. The pervasive disposable masks along with other personal protection equipment are essentially both for medical workers and the common man. And the N95 masks are being used and disposed of in huge numbers and their numbers could easily be in the tens of billions since the pandemic struck a year and a half ago.
The environmental cost of this addition to our trash has been high. The COVID-19 generates an additional amount of medical waste that could be in the region of 7,200T each day. The disposable mask comprises a bulk of it. Though there has been a slowdown in the intensity of the pandemic in various regions, wearing masks has become mandatory in vast regions of the world. And most of them are single-use ones.
One way to cut down on the numbers would be using reusable instead of disposable masks. A study by MIT went into the various scenarios of using different forms of masks for protection against the pandemic.
Merely decontamination of the N95 masks for reuse by medical workers could bring down the expenses and the waste generated by 75% instead of using disposable masks just once.
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Professor Giovanni Traverso says that there could be both a significant drop in waste and also considerable savings in reusing decontaminated masks by health care workers.
Switching to reusable N95 masks made of silicone further brought down the waste. These masks are not yet available commercially but Traverso with his team is working on them. Physician Jacqueline Chu from the Massachusetts General Hospital authored the study that appeared in the British Medical Journal Open.
Reducing And Reusing The Disposable Mask
The N95 masks were scarce during the initial stage of the pandemic. Medical workers, including doctors, had to resort to wearing one for the full day and not switch to a fresh one every time they attended to a different patient.
As the scarcity persisted, hospitals including Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital started decontaminating them in systems that used vapor of hydrogen peroxide to sterilize the masks. Masks could be used for several days using this system.
The reusable silicone rubber-based N95 mask is being developed by Traverso and his team. This mask contains a filter that can either be reused after sterilization or discarded. The design of the masks makes it convenient to sterilize them by bleaching or heating. They can thus be used several times till they are worn.
Traverso says that switching to a reusable disposable mask would significantly cut down costs. The disposable masks are also adding significantly to the mass of waste generated each day during the pandemic, and they also take a long period to degrade.
Though the priority rightly has been to safeguard people during the pandemic the environmental issue has always been staring us in the face for some time now. It remains as much of a priority and almost two years into the pandemic is a long time to consider the disposable masks and other protective pieces of equipment are adding to the waste generated. And billions are being added each day.
Alternatives To Disposable Masks
US Hospitals have switched strategies and are accessing decontamination systems depending on the availability of the N95 masks. The Massachusetts team came up with different scenarios to study the impact of switching to a more environmentally friendly way to use disposable masks.
The usage patterns varied between a new N95 mask for every new patient, using a single mask throughout the day, decontaminating the masks and using them for several days, and relying on hydrogen peroxide as a sterilization agent. They also considered other expense factors with each scenario.
They discovered that reusing the disposable mask was the sanest strategy and would cause significant savings. It could also considerably bring down the volume of waste generated.
The costs could come down from $6.4B to between $1.4B and $1.7B. The waste generated would also reduce significantly from 84M kilograms to somewhere between 13 and 18M kilograms.
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Using the silicone masks could further bring down the waste generated and the costs to 1.6M kilograms and $831 million. The Chu says that as masks are here to stay for quite some time now, it is time that we consider the sustainability factor in the use of disposable masks and other protective equipment.