There’s no need to throw away fabric masks. Having your favourite fabric masks on hand as backup in your car, bag or pockets is important because any mask is better than no mask in low-risk and fleeting contact settings, such as outside.
Double masking – placing your fabric mask over a disposable surgical mask – offers increased protection compared to a single fabric or surgical mask. And fabric masks will also offer protection against other droplet-based diseases, like the flu.
Sustainability in healthcare
The surge in disposable mask waste points to a broader issue that’s getting increasingly recognised: hospital waste.
Take single use plastic hospital gowns, for example. An estimated 1 million gowns have been used each year of the pandemic at just one (of six) acute public hospitals in Victoria, according to an ongoing investigation undertaken by co-author Forbes McGain.
This number is a conservative estimate, and only captures public hospitals when we know disposal gowns are used in many other settings. This includes in private hospitals, aged care, residential and home care, allied health services and testing and vaccination centres.
Environmentally sustainable healthcare is an emerging field aimed at finding alternative solutions to the waste generated in healthcare, its impacts on the environment, and how we educate health professionals on sustainable practices.
For example, research shows there’s potential to expand the “tiered approach”, which offers further choice of protection depending on low or high risk settings. For example, integrating reusable gowns when appropriate could help keep people safe, put less strain on supply systems, and help reduce waste.
Spearheading this effort is textile scientist Meriel Chamberlin, who is collaborating with clinicians to develop compliant, safe and reusable textile gowns that offer protection and comfort with a lower environmental impact than disposables.
When it comes to masks, more sustainable options are also being developed. This includes masks and filters made from biodegradable agricultural crop waste.
Research is also underway to identify processes for re-purposing discarded single-use face masks into road pavements materials.
Six ways to offset our daily waste
Even during a pandemic, people don’t want to be wasteful. Tellingly, “Plastic Free July” saw a huge global increase in participation from 250 million participants in 2019, to 326 million in 2020.
There are many ways to reduce waste without compromising your health. The key is to focus on behaviours within your control, such as minimising single-use plastics. To help offset your daily waste from disposable masks, consider:
making the switch to refillable cleaning products to cut down on single-use packaging (there are even delivery options)
if you’ve shifted to online grocery delivery, choose paper over plastic bags and either reuse them at home or compost them after use
when dining at home, repurpose your leftovers, prioritise older food, and avoid over-buying to cut down on food waste
if you’re shopping online more, find second-hand retailers and peer-to-peer platforms to give pre-loved items a new life (there are delivery options for this too)
before throwing away household items (clothing, furniture), try selling or giving them away online - you’d be surprised what other people find useful
if your household items are damaged, get them repaired, or use them for a different purpose, such as using well-worn clothes as cleaning rags.
Just because we’re in a period of significant social change, doesn’t mean we have to lose momentum on sustainability.