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Environmentally friendly masks?

The Coronavirus has made face masks a new part of daily life, like it or not. So how do we choose one that keeps us safe, but also considers impact to the environment? Should we care at this point?

There are basically four choices: N-95 respirators, surgical masks/K-95 masks, reusable cloth face coverings and disposable paper masks.

N-95 respirators which create a facial seal when worn correctly, offer the best protection hands down. Surgical and K-95 masks are next best (meant for one-time use ya'll!), then reusable cloth masks and finally paper masks.

Experts say that between surgical and cotton masks, the difference in safety is small while the contrast in sustainability is vast. The best bet for a reasonable balance of protection and sustainability, some say, is a reusable cloth mask.

Mark Nicas, an adjunct professor at the University of California Berkeley's School of Environmental Health Sciences, estimated that, when worn properly: Surgical masks and cloth masks are about equal (75 percent effective) when it comes to reducing the spread of viral droplets to people around you - aka the outbound droplet.

Cloth masks are less efficient at protecting you against droplets from others (the inbound droplet). Cloth is about 50 percent effective, compared with 75 percent for surgical masks. 

In terms of sustainability, however, "there is no question" that cloth masks are better for day-to-day use, said Gang Sun, a researcher in fiber and textile chemistry at the University of California, Davis.

That's because medical grade N-95 masks and surgical masks are generally not reusable (oh boy, I've been using mine since March) and are usually made from synthetic materials that are, like plastic, derived from petroleum and do not break down quickly in landfills. Boo.

The same is true of disposable paper masks, which usually contain a lot of micro- plastics. Boo again. A study by the University of College London's Plastic Wast Innovation Hub found that if all 68 million residents of Britain were to wear one disposable mask every day for a year, it would amount to roughly 73,000 tons of plastic waste. The mask-waste we are now adding to landfills is mind boggling!

As of publish date, regular folks can't get hands on N-95's at all - the theory is they are to be reserved for health workers, who are more often exposed to both airborne droplets and fluid hazards like splashes and sprays. So we turn to surgical or cloth for safety.

Dr. Megan R. Schwarzman, a physician and environmental health researcher at University of California, Berkeley, suggested using masks made from remnant fabric or making your own face covering from household textiles like old T-shirts instead of buying new mask products. 

"Virgin fiber of any kind is going to require more energy, more resources and more toxic chemicals than something that has already been made." Dr. Schwarzman said. 

She says her choice for everyday protection is an item most people already have in their homes: a cotton bandana.

Something to think about.

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