Face masks have become the symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we might have to get used to them: Many countries are discussing to make face masks mandatory, in order to open up society again, while reducing the risk to spread the disease.
Rising demand – rising footprint
The rise of the face mask brings with itself a whole new bunch of problems: The demand has been skyrocketing, and medical supply chains constantly struggle to get the necessary face masks into the hands of medical workers.
Face mask ≠ Face mask
Now, we won’t dive into the global shortage too much. But it’s important to note that there are two different face masks in the public debate right now:
N95 face masks are the masks needed for medical caretakers – they protect the wearer and filter out particles. And these masks have been short in demand, with leading companies like 3M ramping up production as we speak.
The other kind of face mask is a mask you could make at home by using a simple fabric. These masks will not protect the wearer, but they help to reduce the risk of infecting others.
Right now, we need millions, if not billions of face masks more than usual. Time to ask the question: What’s the environmental footprint of all of that?
In this article, we want to compare the footprint of the two different kinds of face masks – and do the math on scale. How much CO2 does the current need for additional face masks cost us?
Of course, both masks serve different functions. And we’re absolutely no medical experts. That’s why we only look at the topic from an environmental perspective.
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Face masks: Seemingly simple products
Face masks are simple products. They don’t require many different steps of production or complicated material setups.
But this example illustrates nicely how the consumption of hundreds of thousands or even millions of products does indeed cause a significant environmental damage, even if the individual product’s footprint might be comparably low.
N95 face mask: What is it made from?
Let’s start with the N95 face mask. This mask filters out particles, and is therefore considered safe for medical workers.
N95 face masks are made from unwoven Propylene (PP). They are transformed through a process called meltblowing. Next to that, they are attached through rubber bands, feature a tiny aluminium strip as well as a small filtering attachment.
This is how the face mask structure looks like in Mobius:
And the total footprint of one mask… is 0,05 kg of CO2-equivalent, so around 50 grams. The footprint of one banana is around 80 grams, for comparison.
DIY cotton face mask
Of course, a self-made cotton face mask hasn’t nearly got the same protective properties as an N95 face mask.
However, it still protects the people around you – and it is much more readily available.
Right now, we see many people and companies manufacturing stylish looking face masks from cotton fabric. So how does the mask made from cotton fabric compare to the N95 mask?
The result: 0,06 kg CO2-equivalent per face mask! The CO2 footprint of the cotton face mask is actually 20% higher than the footprint of the N95 protective face mask.
Isn’t that weird? Where does all the environmental impact come from?
The answer lies in the cotton: Cotton fabric, even if only a little, has a relatively high CO2 footprint throughout its production cycle. Thus, it even beats the “artificial” Polypropylene material.
But that’s only half the truth: How does the use-phase impact the environmental footprint of the masks?
Of course, this is only half the truth. Not only because the use of the two kinds of masks is so different – also because of the way they are used.
This is actually a common problem when conducting a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), the technical analysis behind what we’re doing here. Different products are used differently during the use-phase. And the impact can vary drastically.
N95 face masks are recommended to only be used once. During the current shortage, some people advise to use them multiple times – but the maximum safety can only be guaranteed with single use.
In this case, the N95 mask becomes plastic waste on a daily basis. A medical worker would have to wear one mask per working day.
The cotton mask, on the other hand, can be worn many times – it simply doesn’t have the same medical requirements. According to the CDC, it’s even fine to just wash it every once in a while.
So, of course, after 30 days – the picture looks very different.
Be aware that this does not include washing the mask. Current recommendations are to wash a face mask regularly in order to disinfect it. However, it is also possible to microwave it or simply bake it in the oven. You might also wash the little piece of cloth with your towels. This is why the graphical comparison should be taken with a grain of salt.
In our calculations, we also used brand-new cotton fabric – many people will simply recycle old fabrics, which reduces the footprint of the DIY mask even further.
But how does it … scale?
As we just saw, the environmental footprint of a single mask is comparably low.
But the issue in this crisis is not the individual mask – it is the sheer amount of masks needed.
Germany, for example, is currently discussing making face masks mandatory. How do the different face masks compare in a country with more than 80 million citizens?
N95 masks in the public health sector in Germany
Germany is a large country, with more than 800.000 people working in the hospital sector, according to the bureau of statistics.
Per month, Germany is using about 17 million FFP masks.
17 million of our masks translate to 850 TONS of CO2 for protective N95 masks alone.
To put this in perspective – 850 tons of CO2-equivalent equals about 370.000 medium-sized steaks (and steaks are a real climate killer). Driving 100km with a 8l car produces roughly 20kg of CO2-equivalent – that means we could comfortably drive 42.500.000 kilometers. That’s circumventing the globe 1060 times…
What happened if everyone had to wear a mask?
In the same article that we linked above, the German minister claims that Germany might need up to 12 billion masks, if everyone is supposed to wear a face mask in public.
If Germany would need an additional 12 billion simple face masks, the environmental footprint would be around 720.000 tons of CO2-equivalent.
One person’s annual CO2 budget is 2,3 tons, if we want to fight climate change effectively. This means that the need for protective masks in Germany alone uses up the CO2 budget for more than 310.000 people.
Small changes can have significant effects for the environment
Of course this is all very theoretical. But if shows how tiny changes in a product can make a big difference on a large scale. Because the amount of face masks needed in this pandemic is nothing compared to the amount of single-use products we produce and consume every day.
Imagine that a simple change of material in the face masks could reduce their impact by 20%. With 12 billion masks needed, this would save 144.000 tons of CO2 emissions.
We modeled all of this in our own tool, Mobius. Try it for free and see how you can make an impact, too.