Face masks instantaneously became a part of our wardrobe this year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. To make the best of a scary situation, many people express themselves with neat patterns or designs on these masks. The big brands quickly swept in with fast fashion face masks to fill the demand.

Others generally stick to disposable masks that have their own environmental problems. With a negative environmental impact, workers’ rights being ignored to produce masks, and masks being made with toxic material, it can be hard to find the most ethical choice. Fast fashion masks are not the answer to the pandemic and yet in the grips of fear of the virus, many people have forgotten to think about these aspects.

I’d like to get the word out about the facts concerning masks, the best practices to purchase masks and dispose of them.

Environmental Impact of Disposable Face Masks

The disposable face masks are handy for sure, so long as you have a steady supply. However, due to some folks’ irresponsibility, we’re seeing many of them on the ground and oceans. Littered masks can have nasty effects on our environment. 

According to the BBC, birds are getting tangled in them. They’re also adding to the world’s plastic waste problem since 75% of used masks will end up in landfills or our seas. Masks have a 450-year lifespan, by the way. It’s hard to imagine the consequences of this for the environment, sea life, and other wildlife. I can imagine turtles may face a terrible impact since these masks with their straps could look like their natural prey, the jellyfish.

Of course, these masks will only contribute to the microplastics already seeping into our foodhuman organs, and rainwater. The reality of human neglect of the Earth is all bleak and disheartening.

What to do with Disposable Face Masks

If you’re using disposable masks, please make sure they eventually end up in the garbage can and not in a recycling container. Many of them contain plastic polypropylene and will not break down naturally. 

Please consider snipping the straps of old masks, similarly to how you would cut plastic soda holders. The fish and birds need help, and cutting the straps can save lives.

If we’re going to be more proactive about keeping masks off the ground, more of us will need to switch to reusable masks. Be sure to express yourself when picking some out, but there is one particular pitfall we need to consider as environmental protectors: fast fashion.

Woman wearing a black fast fashion face masks

Fast Fashion Commodifies the Pandemic

As Ella Egidy writes: “Because the wearing of face masks is necessary for virus suppression, brands have taken an opportunity to commodify essential life-protecting equipment, and have used it to further endanger and exploit marginalized people to produce their goods.”

Like Ella’s article points to Boohoo, fast fashion brands have reacted predictably to the pandemic and surge of demand for facial masks. Reports have come in about workers having to hide being positive for COVID-19 to keep working. And ironically, while producing facial masks, they are often not given the appropriate safety measures for workplace safety. Many workers do not have the security to report labor rights abuses due to being undocumented.

I’ve posted about fast fashion before, and I probably will again. Fast fashion is a significant problem that I’m trying to help remedy with my upcycled products. 

What is an Ethical Option?

I can see face masks remaining a part of the post-COVID-19 world. At the very least, they aren’t going away for a while. If you use single-use masks, then please dispose of them properly as described above. Snip the straps and throw them away in a garbage bin, not the recycling bin.

Reusable masks are a better long-term option. Any covering is better than none at all, but here are a few things to look for when finding a quality, washable mask as outlined by OHS:

  • 100-percent cotton fabric
  • Either masks with pockets to place filters (or even facial tissues)
  • OR a mask with three or more layers

If you’re going to get reusable masks, please try to avoid buying from a big brand. The processes that create their fast fashion face masks are harmful to the environment. 

Handmade facial masks

Instead, I suggest buying from handmade sellers or companies that have made it their mission to use eco-friendly means to create their products. There are plenty of handmade sellers on Etsy who follow a safe mask’s guidelines using organic cotton fabrics with pockets.

Wash your masks regularly- or even daily- with soap and water. Make sure it is completely dry before wearing it again since germs love damp environments. For this reason, it may be useful to have three masks. One as a back-up, one that can be drying, and one ready to go.

Stay Safe and Stay Ethical. Say No to Fast Fashion Face Masks!

My thoughts are with you, dear reader, as we trudge closer to the day, we can put this pandemic behind us. Until then, please be careful, and remember that we’re all in this together.

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