With so much human-induced damage already done to the earth, now we are skating on thin ice. Any further damage or pollution to the earth can lead to a major catastrophe.
The coronavirus pandemic affects humans temporarily but the masks we are currently using can permanently disbalance the global ecosystem.
Most masks currently in use harm the environment. Single-use masks contain plastic that may not biodegrade at all.
Oceans and other water bodies are being dumped with single-use masks. Tossing them in the water can keep our surroundings clean. But in the long run, can be ingested back by us through contaminated water and other food habits such as eating fish exposed to toxins due to BPA breakdown.
So, this is the right time to ask ourselves – is your face mask good for the earth?
Let us delve into the threats of using single-use and other material masks that pose a risk to the environment, and which material is best for humans and the earth.
What are N95 masks and other single-use masks made from?
N95 masks contain synthetic plastic fibers. A filter (plastic) is attached to it for easy breathing.
The mask has at least four layers and has an electrostatic charge for better performance. Metal clips also are an integral part of N95 masks.
N95 masks are not washable but can be worn multiple times. Once the filters clog or the surface is dirty, the mask must be disposed of. There are chances of infection if you do not dispose of the mask at the right time.
It is quite an expensive mask to wear daily. Also, synthetic fibers don’t decompose.
On the other hand, single-use masks are low cost but made from polypropylene and have a single layering that does make this mask safe for use.
Polypropylene masks are heat resistant and quite resistant due to plastic in their composition. These don’t biodegrade, polluting the environment permanently.
If the masks are thrown into the water, the particles may break down, but get ingested by marine animals.
And you’ve heard the saying, ‘what you sow is what you reap’, the same toxic water can be consumed by us making us sick. If you are a fish eater you most definitely may someday eat fish that was exposed to toxic plastic particles.
Before the start of the pandemic, N95 masks were specially made for healthcare professionals as it keeps them safe from contracting or infecting the patients.
With the start of the pandemic, there was a shortage of N95 masks as masses were buying it to stay safe.
For people who are not associated with the healthcare profession, a fabric mask is more than enough, along with other precautions such as boosting immunity and staying socially distanced.
N95 masks are not manufactured from environment-friendly materials and are best left for medical professionals.
Choosing environmentally friendly material masks during these trying times is a wise decision and we must do just that.
Are cotton masks safe for the environment?
Cotton’s heritage as a fabric dates back to at least 5000 BC. Every household across the globe uses this fabric either as clothing or for other household tasks.
It is a natural fiber that produces a soft, strong, breathable, absorbent, and washable fabric when woven or knitted.
Cotton plants can grow in the wild in many dry tropical or subtropical regions, but it is a labor-intensive crop. It requires dry weather, sunshine, regular irrigation, and protection from pests and weeds.
It is the world’s largest non-food crop grown for trade.
As consumers, we get a product that is feature-rich and is readily available. What we don’t know is the damage the cotton cultivation process is causing to the environment.
The crisp cotton clothes that we wear are chemically laden.
Here are a few facts about cotton that could get you thinking about the damage it can do to you and the environment at the same time:
- Cotton plants use 10,000 liters of water to produce just 1 kg of cotton, which is only enough to manufacture a single pair of jeans and a t-shirt.
- Farmers grow cotton as a monocrop. This means due to the high demand for the crop; farmers grow cotton continuously for years in the same piece of land.
Monocrop method of cultivation is dangerous as it strips the soil of its nutrients.
Monocrops require a huge amount of pesticides and insecticides as insects and fungi move to these fields to eat the crop.
You will be amazed to know that although cotton is cultivated only on 2.4% of the arable land in the world. But around 25% of the world’s pesticide is sprayed on this area to kill pests and insects.
And after a certain time, the pests and insects become resistant to it forcing the farmers to spray stronger chemicals. The entire process degrades the condition of the soil and makes it barren.
- Cotton production requires a lot of chemicals that can pass on to humans, causing serious ailments.
- Cotton may be a comfortable fabric for human use, but neither its cultivation nor its disposal is eco-friendly. Cotton can take several decades to decompose which is not healthy for the earth.
A lot of harm has already been done to the environment, but it is never too late to start. If we don’t start now the damages can become beyond repair.
Is there anything safer than plastic and cotton masks?
Yes, here is a fabric that is heaven-sent for mankind – hemp. It is the fabric of the future because it’s great for human use and even better for the environment.
Hemp Masks are the solution
Hemp is a controversial crop because it belongs to the same Cannabis Sativa family that marijuana does. But it does not possess any psychotic effects.
In a world looking for sustainable solutions, hemp is the answer to all questions.
Few facts that establish Hemp as the most sustainable fabric man can ever produce:
- Unlike cotton, hemp crops need very little water. Rainfall is enough for its growth.
- Hemp crops can be processed into several products such as clothing, food, plastic, paper, concrete-like material for home insulation, and even biofuel.
- It is a quick-growing crop and can be cultivated and harvested several times in a year.
- This super crop does not require any pesticides, insecticides, or fertilizers to grow. Instead, it provides nutrients to the soil. It kills weeds, and the soil is in a better condition than before the hemp seeds were sown.
- Hemp plants absorb carbon from the environment to purify the air. In fact, the plant can decompose radioactive material from the soil.
An experiment was conducted by scientists at Chernobyl. The hemp plant conducts Phytoremediation, and acres of wasteland in Eastern Europe was made cultivable.
Hemp fabric is very absorbent, durable, and has thermoregulating abilities, hence you can wear this fabric throughout the year.
The fabric is resistant to mold, bacteria, chemical, and UV rays making it an ideal fabric for masks during this pandemic and ahead.
Hemp masks can be printed and dyed according to your preference and can be used multiple times. If you don’t want to use the mask any longer you can toss it into a compost pile and the mask will decompose in just a few weeks.
We may be late but that doesn’t mean we don’t start at all.
The time is right to bring in masks that work for humans as well as the earth. We must do it for ourselves.
Jaspreet Singh is the co-founder of the NGO Hemp Foundation which works for the empowerment of economically challenged farmers in Uttarakhand. He works as a bridge between the people and the business to make the farmers economically grow. He loves to hear their problems to provide them an explicit solution. He is also passionate about adventures tours, trekking, and long bike rides.