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The Quest for a Disposable Mask That Won’t Pollute

Companies experiment with ways to make the plastic used in most face coverings biodegradable, so it won’t threaten marine life.

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Illustration: Derek Abella for Bloomberg Businessweek
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Since the beginning of the pandemic two years ago, global production of face masks has rocketed to 129 billion a month from just an estimated 8 billion in all of 2019. While they’ve helped protect humans from Covid-19, the masks—which today are mostly made from plastic fibers that can take hundreds of years to disintegrate—are a threat for creatures that dwell in streams, rivers, and oceans. Almost 1.6 billion of the face coverings likely ended up in the seas in 2020, based on a conservative assumption by the marine conservation nonprofit OceansAsia, which estimates about 3% of masks made that year ended up as litter. Out in the open, their fibers break up into microplastics that are impossible to collect far more quickly than plastic bags, making them a bigger threat than plastic bags, according to a University of Southern Denmark study.

“Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak,” United Nations official Pamela Coke-Hamilton said in a report from the organization’s Conference on Trade and Development. “The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”