Three million disposable masks are thrown away every minute—and it’s trashing the planet.

Along with vaccines and social distancing, masks are an essential way to stop the spread of COVID-19. But disposable masks are causing their own problem—a growing environmental catastrophe. Just how bad is disposable face mask pollution for the planet? Consider these facts:

  1. Every month, 130 billion disposable masks are thrown out, researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have found.
  2. MIT research estimates that the pandemic is generating 7,200 tons of medical waste every day—and the bulk of that is made up of disposable masks.
  3. The polypropylene plastic in disposable masks takes as long as 450 years to break down. To put that length of time in perspective, imagine one of the Renaissance’s famous rulers, Queen Elizabeth I, tossing her disposable mask after attending a nice banquet in 1571. It would only now be fully decomposed.

Disposable Masks Dangerous to Ocean

The Earth’s oceans were awash in marine plastic pollution prior to the pandemic, but disposable masks are making the issue even worse. Non-profit OceansAsia found that 1.56 billion masks wound up in the world’s oceans in 2020 alone.

Single-use face masks are constructed using several plastics, including polypropylene, polyethylene and vinyl. The combination of materials, along with concerns about contamination, make disposable masks essentially unrecyclable.

Plastic pollution, including disposable masks, takes a huge toll on wildlife, killing approximately 100,000 marine mammals and turtles per year, as well as a million seabirds. The chemicals in plastic can harm humans, too, when we eat seafood, exposing us to toxins such as endocrine disruptors. This is to say nothing of the aesthetic toll masks and plastic debris take on Earth’s most beautiful places.

The Financial Cost of Masks

In addition to the environmental costs, disposable masks are also plain-old expensive. According to data from marketing research firm NielsenIQ, as of April 2021, Americans were spending $101 million on masks per week. During times of higher transmission, such as the Delta surge, sales of masks soar even higher.

It’s important to note, though, that staying healthy—which includes masking up—is good for the economy. According to 2021 research from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, a nationwide mask mandate, along with other public-health measures, could reduce the coronavirus’s spread to basically zero—a potential $1 trillion boost to the U.S. GDP.

The medical costs of contracting covid can be high, too. FairHealth, a nonprofit that collects data on health insurance claims, found the average cost of a covid-related hospital stay is $73,300.

Wearing the right kind of mask—a high-quality, reusable mask—is a good investment in both community-wide and personal health.

How You Can Help: Choose Sustainable Alternatives to Disposable Masks

Instead of daily disposable masks, purchase a washable, reusable mask. They are less expensive over time and far more environmentally responsible. Reusable masks greatly reduce the amount of single-use plastics entering the waste stream, stopping it at the source before this trash can start piling into landfills or washing into the ocean.

Increasingly, masks are part of daily life and activities. For example, the Transportation Security Administration has extended its requirement that airline passengers wear masks through at least early 2022 and many schools, offices, business and sporting venues now require them, too.

“Masks are here to stay for the foreseeable future, so it’s critical that we incorporate sustainability into their use,” the MIT report states. Since COVID, and masks, may stick around for a while, let’s do this masking thing right.