Blog#42: On COVID masks - good to know?

October 28, 2021
Monika Weber-Fahr
I enjoy writing (and researching) about solutions to environmental challenges. Who would not? When we began designing the concept for this Blog, the vision that drove us was to provide useful information, ideally solution-oriented. The Blog is to help those of us in the Christ Church community who felt like “drowning in bad news” insofar as our environment and its somewhat dwindling prospects were concerned. It seeks to offer practical ideas and inspiration on things everyone can do - by themselves or as a community - in addressing the broad gamut of challenges we face, from practicing lower resource-use consumer behaviors, to participating in policy initiatives and activism, to prayer. Practice, Participate, Pray. Easy, one might think. But sometimes, it can get really really hard. Mainly, when there is no clear way out: When there is a conundrum that seems unsolvable.
One such conundrum involves the COVID19 masks, mainly FFP2 masks and the ‘regular’ surgical masks. Now, that autumn is bringing us the fourth wave of the pandemic, here in Austria as well as in many other parts of the world, masks are back. Under current regulations, across most of Austria, irrespective of whether or not you can provide proof of “3 G” (tested, recovered, or vaccinated) you must wear a mask in shops of “daily needs”, such as food stores and supermarkets, in public transport, or in places of cultural exchange. The rules are somewhat tighter in Vienna - but mostly insofar as the 3G (or 2G) requirements are concerned. The masks will be with us for at least the next six months, if not longer. I am really glad they are required here - so there is no silly debate with folks who don’t care to protect themselves or others. But we don’t see the masks only on people’s faces - we see them practically everywhere. Lying on the sidewalks, dropped carelessly, falling out of overflowing waste collection bins, blown by the autumn winds across street and parks. We read in the newspapers how they are floating in the ocean, clogging airwaves of fish, contaminating rivers and watersheds. Clearly, there is a dramatic environmental impact from wearing masks - and there is nothing we can do about it. Or is there?  

Foto: FFP2 masks - they seem everywhere. How do we best deal with the environmental impact they leave behind? Foto: MWF.  

Every day, an April 2021 article in the National Geographic reports, some 3.4 billion face masks or face shields are discarded. That seems a lot. Try multiplying this by 365! And then double it: The pandemic will complete its second year in March 2022!  Even more worrisome: These wretched things take awfully long until they decompose - somewhere between 20 and 450 years, depending on the mask you are using. And what happens during decomposition is neither a great prospect: FFP2, surgical masks and the like are made from multiple plastic fibers, primarily polypropylene, that will fragment into smaller and smaller microplastics and nanoplastics. These, in turn, do all sorts of things to our environment, our rivers and seas, and scientists are concerned about all of this but have not really figured out the exact impacts and what to do about them.
Now, there are no alternatives to wearing a mask while in a pandemic, short of complete isolation. Here in Austria, the very safest and best masks - FFP2 masks or equivalent ones, are required by law. So we have not many choices it seems. There are ways to carefully manage use and re-use that one may want to consider. And there are some alternatives to the standard FFP2 masks that meet the quality requirements but that can be re-used more often and over a longer period of time. I have checked out masks from 5logPro and from Livinguard, both are FFP2 equivalent, and I found them both pleasant to wear. But more research is needed and in the making, in particular in regard to the materials used. For now, though, my conclusion is: COVID19 has added to our environmental footprint, and there seems indeed little we can do about it. Or is there?

 
Foto: Mask can take a long time to decompose.  Source: www.miamasuku.det.

Six months ago or so, Robert had sent me an email - asking that I write a blog about the environmental issues associated with facemasks. No, I said at the time, too complicated, too big a problem, nothing we can do about it. Not a topic for the Blog, I thought at the time. Why did I change my mind? Well, first of all: The way we deal with the masks here in Vienna, while less than ideal, stil warrants our attention and support: The masks are to go into the grey tons - the Restmüll - and not into either paper collection bins, nor for recycling, nor into compostables. Oddly enough, it seems not a whole lot of people know this - a piece of information worthwhile passing on! Secondly, I thought it’s good to know that the city of Vienna sends its Restmüll to  the  incinerators - in four locations, in Spittelau, Floetzersteig, Simmeringer Haide and Pfaffenau. And while waste incineration in principle is not ideal, given the emissions this generates, here in Vienna Wienergie proudly announces, on its website, that their incinerators’ emissions are super-low, achieving levels 90% less than what European emissions standards allow. And finally, I have come to agree with what Robert told me at the time: We don’t have to have a solution to make information worthwhile sharing. It helps us understand the relationship between us, the way we (must) live, and the environment.
In his request for a blog, Robert had suggested that I go further. Compare different FFP2 mask brands and their impact on the environment. Some may be produced in countries with lower environmental controls. I could highlight that some come with more packaging than others. Perhaps I might suggest to those that travel abroad to stock up with e.g N95 masks because they are supposed to be able to worne longer. But here I had to give up. I simply could not find good test reports that systematically look at all these questions. Clearly, there is a lot to find out. Maybe we can also crowdsource some of the answers. Let us know if you have interesting resources to quote - we will put them out here in the months to come. 
Inspired? Thoughts or reactions? Or ideas for forthcoming blogs?  We look forward to hearing from you - best via email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..