Single-use Face Masks vs. Reusable Face Masks: Which are more eco-friendly?
This new study by UNEP and the Life Cycle Initiative, reviews five scientific Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) on face-masks to draw conclusions on which among the available alternatives, single-use or reusable, have the lowest environmental impacts, along their life cycle – from extraction of raw materials, to their end of life.
The report finds that reusable masks (particularly if made from synthetic materials) are less damaging for the environment than single-use face masks, and reusable cotton masks, if used responsibly and economically.
To identify which type of face masks are environmentally preferred; the study considers the following factors:
- Number of reuses and washing practices (which are key to minimize environmental impacts)
- Materials used
- Guidelines and standards on how to use masks
- Location of production vs. point of sale (transport)
- End-of-life disposal
Surgical/Medical mask (Single-use)
Respirator-type mask (e.g., FFP2/N95)(Single-use)
Fabric/Cloth/Community mask (Non-medical, Reusable)
The recommendations from this meta-analysis are limited to face masks used by the general public, that is, masks worn by private persons to limit the spread of the virus in public places (as opposed to masks worn by health professionals in a hospital setting). Furthermore, the meta-analysis covers only face masks and not face shields or other types of hard-plastic masks, and provides no guidance on the effectiveness of different face mask designs with respect to limiting the transmission of COVID-19.
What you will find in this blog
- What you need to know about single-use and reusable face masks
- Why are single-use face masks a problem?
- Policy recommendations for face masks
- Related questions about face masks and our findings
- About the single-use face masks and reusable alternatives report
- References used for the single-use face masks and sustainable alternatives report
What you need to know about single-use and reusable face masks
- Reusable face masks are generally environmentally preferred to single-use face masks, although the number of times they are used and how they are washed determine whether this is always the case.
- Machine-washing of masks is found to be strongly preferred to hand-washing, when masks are washed together with the household laundry in full loads.
Reusable masks made from synthetic materials:
- Reusable face masks made from synthetic materials, being lighter and with lower environmental impacts in some impact categories, show better environmental performance than single-use face masks and reusable cotton masks, provided they are reused sufficient times (approximately 10 to 20 times).
- Reusable masks made from synthetic materials can be as effective, against COVID-19 virus, as single-use face masks if they are manufactured in accordance with the WHO guidelines and/or relevant national standards. Most guidelines on reusable face masks recommend they are made up of three layers and that the different layers be made of different fabrics.
Reusable masks made from cotton:
- Cotton has relatively high environmental impacts due to the high use of water, land and agrichemicals in its cultivation.
- Cotton masks did not generally show better environmental performance than single-use masks, unless they were made from repurposed fabric, in which case they have the lowest environmental impacts. However, unless they include a synthetic layer, e.g. a nonwoven filter, they are the least effective with respect to transmission of disease.
- For single-use masks, the production phase, including the production of raw materials, is the most significant contributor to their environmental impacts.
- If single-use masks are not locally produced (e.g., made in China) and transported (to Europe) by air rather than by sea, transport strongly influences their environmental impacts.
- The LCA studies considered show that formal waste disposal of face masks (incineration and landfill) generally add only a small amount to environmental impacts. However, the studies did not consider the possible impacts of masks entering the natural environment, e.g., if they are littered.
Why are single-use face masks a problem?
Mask-wearing, in most parts of the world, has become synonymous with the COVID-19 global pandemic, with many countries mandating or encouraging the wearing of face masks as one of the front-line measures in preventing the spread of the disease. This has resulted in a dramatic rise in the use of face masks by the general public, with global face mask usage estimated at 129 billion per month.
It is further estimated that 1.56 billion single-use masks could have entered the ocean in 2020, amounting to between 4,680 and 6,240 tonnes of plastic pollution to the marine environment. It is thus apparent that single-use face masks have the potential to be a considerable source of plastic in the environment.
As with other plastic debris, once in the environment, masks pose a range of threats including:
- Wildlife can become entangled in the masks or ingest them
- Masks can break-down into micro- and nano-plastics, with detrimental effects on organisms
- Floating masks can become a vector of invasive species and microbial pathogens
- Masks can serve as a source of chemical contaminants. A specific concern with face masks is that anti-viral coatings, could increase their negative impact on marine biota (flora and fauna).
Policy recommendations for face masks
Based on the analysis of five life cycle assessments and the review of ample literature, the UNEP report concludes that:
- From an environmental perspective, countries should promote the use of reusable face masks for the general public (non-high-risk individuals).
- The environmental impacts of hospitalisation can be very high, therefore wearing effective masks, to protect the wearer and those around them, is the best option, since it avoids potentially very high environmental impacts of medical treatment.
- Countries should work with international organizations (e.g. WHO, ISO, etc) to develop a widely agreed set of minimum performance standards for reusable masks to ensure effectiveness of reusable masks. Such guidelines and standards should require producers of reusable masks to both meet a minimum effectiveness standard for protecting their population and maintain this performance for a specified number of washes.
- Studies on how mask design, maintenance and wearing practices in community settings affect health outcomes are strongly recommended, for the development of guidelines and standards.
- Policy makers should be aware of differences in environmental impacts between different fabrics and mask designs. Reusable face masks are shown to have lower environmental impacts under most scenarios, even more so when they are produced, with repurposed or recycled fabrics and fibres.
- Airfreight should be avoided through better planning and/or local procurement of materials.
- It is recommended to improve monitoring and gathering of waste data on face masks, as this would help in determining points of high littering and/or where interventions should be prioritized.
Related questions about face masks and our findings
Reusable face masks are generally environmentally preferred to single-use face masks, although the number of times they are used and how they are washed determine whether this is always the case.
Home-made masks made from old/repurposed cloth have the lowest environmental impacts owing to the use of second-hand materials in their production, but these are also the least effective so should not be used in high-risk situations. When buying mass-manufactured reusable face masks, opting for those that are produced locally, from repurposed or recycled fabrics, will be more environmentally beneficial.
Masks washed in a fully-loaded washing machine together with the general household laundry has the lowest environmental impacts. If hand-washed, one week’s worth of masks should be washed together in a tub. Having a number of masks in rotation (that can be washed together) was found preferable to washing a single mask every day.
Choose reusable masks that are made of reused/repurposed fabric and/or synthetic materials.. If you can choose between two reusable masks with similar specs, opt for the one with lighter weight and that is produced locally. Reuse your mask many times (at least more than 20 times), washing it effectively in fully-loaded machines.
Single-use Face Mask and Reusable Alternatives Report
The UNEP and Life Cycle Initiative 2022 report on single-use face masks is one of a series of meta-studies based on the review and analysis (meta-analysis) of the available life cycle assessment literature on single-use plastic products and their alternatives. The reports have a specific focus on taking a life cycle approach to plastic pollution to provide recommendations on single-use plastic products and their alternatives. Single-use products covered include menstrual products, nappies, tableware, beverage cups, bottles and grocery bags.
Given that the widespread global wearing of face masks is a recent phenomenon, only five peer-reviewed LCA studies on single-use face masks and their alternatives were found in the scientific literature. The following studies are covered in the meta-analysis:
- The impact and effectiveness of the general public wearing masks to reduce the spread of the pandemics in the UK: A multidisciplinary comparison of single-use maxis versus reusable face masks:: Allison, et al. 2020
- Cotton and surgical masks – what ecological factors are relevant for their sustainability? Schmutz, et al. 2020
- Life Cycle Assessment of Single-use surgical and embedded filtration layer (EFL) reusable face mask: Lee, et al. 2021
- Engineering design process of face masks based on circularity and life cycle assessment in the constraint of the Covid-19 pandemic:: Boix Rodriguez. 2021
- What is the environmental impact of different strategies for the use of medical and community masks? A prospective analysis of their environmental impact: Bouchet, et al. 2021
The analysis also draws on insights from the wider LCA literature on single-use plastic products, textiles, and medical equipment to enrich the findings.
Key parameters to consider when undertaking and interpreting LCAs of single-use face masks and their alternatives
Based on the studies reviewed in the meta-analysis, the following aspects are important considerations when undertaking and interpreting LCAs of single-use face masks and their alternatives:
- Functional equivalence and face mask options: LCA comparisons of single-use vs. reusable fabric masks are only relevant in a community setting (i.e., for mask wearing by the general public), since fabric face masks are recommended only as a last resort in a health care setting.
- Behaviour of consumers: The limited data available suggests that consumer behaviour with regards to washing and wearing masks is far from the ideal or recommended behaviour.
- Modelling choices and choice of environmental impact indicators: As with behavioural assumptions, LCA modelling choices can have a large effect on the comparison of single-use and reusable face masks.
- Geographical context: The available studies are limited in their geographic scope (UK, Switzerland, Italy and Singapore). Results are affected by factors that differ by geographic region, including electricity grid mix, transport to market, and waste management practices.
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