Pandemic Pollution: A Soluble Solution

In June 2020, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, provided an update on the role of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19. He advised that “governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult …” The global increase in mask usage meant that medical waste was no longer generated just by hospitals or clinics but also by the general population. Since masks pose a risk of contamination to the staff at recycling plants, used disposable masks are considered waste. In addition to ending up in landfills, single-use masks have become a source of land and marine litter. Considering that masks contain polypropylene, which can take more than 400 years to decompose, mask accumulation impacts the environment. This innovation aimed to reduce pandemic pollution by creating biodegradable masks that could easily be disposed of at home. Constructed from a water-soluble embroidery stabilizer, these masks would also disintegrate if they ended up in oceans, thereby decreasing their threat to marine life. Three tests were performed to evaluate the masks’ efficacy – the candle test, the microscope light test and the fogging test. The masks failed the latter two tests. As such, the next steps would include the addition of another layer, a filter pocket and a filter. Also, modifications will be made to improve the fit, and a further investigation will look into the by-products formed when the mask dissolves in water. Though these masks would be ineffective in preventing the transmission of diseases, this innovation has unmasked a step towards a possible solution to pandemic pollution.

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