The Quest for a Disposable Mask That Won’t Pollute
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- 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.”
To address that problem, dozens of manufacturers around the world are working on biodegradable masks. Some are made from new plastics said to self-destruct in a few months. Others use a plastic substitute made from corn starch, sugar cane, and other sugars. And a few are even embedded with seeds that germinate into meadow flowers.
“Biodegradable masks will be a big market with a lot of demand from governments who are seeing what a big problem mask pollution is becoming,” says Francois Dalibard, chief executive officer of Groupe Lemoine, a French company that manufactured 500 million face masks this year. “The first ones to offer it will have a big advantage.”
U.K. startup Polymateria Ltd. has patented a formula that uses about a dozen chemicals—rubbers, oils, desiccants—added to plastics during manufacturing. The mix can be adjusted to create soft plastic fibers used in masks, thin films for food packaging, or more rigid materials used to make cups or drink pouches. The products can be customized to self-destruct after a certain time, with the additives helping turn the plastic into a wax that’s fully digested by natural bacteria and fungi in about a year.
Polymateria worked with BSI, the U.K.’s national standards body, to create what it says are the industry’s first standards for measuring the biodegradability of the most littered type of plastic, polyolefins. Plastic products can be certified as meeting the standard by laboratories around the world by measuring how much plastic has been reduced to a harmless wax and testing to make sure no hazardous substances are left behind.
Although several companies offer certification for biodegradable plastics, verifying claims that a plastic material is biodegradable is difficult. “Biodegradation of plastics is a complex process that depends on both the material itself and the conditions of the environment in which it takes place,” says Nicole Grobert, chair of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission. To assess whether a polymer is biodegradable, it’s important to develop “coherent standards for testing and certification, assessing the biodegradation of plastic products in specific environments. Currently such standards for testing and certification do not exist.”
That hasn’t stopped companies from trying. Thai petrochemical company Indorama Ventures PCL has licensed Polymateria’s technology and is planning to use it in fibers it’s designing for mask makers. The company says it’s in discussions with Group Lemoine and mask makers in India and Malaysia to supply the new biodegradable material for those manufacturers’ face coverings. “We’ve looked for a long time for a solution like this that doesn’t leave any microplastics,” says Prashant Desai, Indorama’s fibers chief innovation officer. The company says it’s testing the biodegradable masks against the U.K.’s BSI guidelines for biodegradability, and initial tests of the material have passed the standard.
The Canadian Shield in Waterloo, which manufactures millions of units of personal protective equipment weekly and contracts with the Canadian government to supply face shields, is having trouble keeping up with demand for its BioMask. The biodegradable mask incorporates an additive that allows for microbes and enzymes to “eat away at the treated plastic” once in the landfill. The company says its certified mask, excluding the ear loops and nosebridge, biodegrades 6.5% in 45 days and was tested under conditions similar to a landfill setting. The masks from Canadian Shield don’t turn into a digestible wax and aren’t tested for biodegradability in an open-air situation where masks might be littered.
While disposable medical masks can cost less than 5¢, the cheapest biodegradable masks run about 30¢ each and are often much more expensive. The makers of planet-friendly masks say they need higher demand to help bring down costs. In Hong Kong, mask retailer ReMatter is selling more than 1 million medical masks monthly and has introduced a certified biodegradable mask that will decompose completely after five years in a landfill. At 55¢ each, they’re priced 80% higher than the company’s basic mask. ReMatter, which sells mostly premium masks featuring Disney characters and stylish colors online and at its specialty shops in Hong Kong, is marketing the coverings to corporations and schoolkids. “We’d like to bring down the price a bit more so more people are willing to try it,” says ReMatter founder Alex Lee. “A big part of that is education. We want to make people aware of their choice and how it affects the environment. We are doing talks at schools and teaching children why this is important.”
Critics say pitching masks and other plastics as biodegradable is an irresponsible marketing tactic that could encourage littering. And even with additives to make them biodegradable, masks can still produce microplastics if they simply break down into small pieces but stick around, says David Newman, managing director of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association, a U.K. industry lobbying group.
Those concerns haven’t stopped entrepreneurs worldwide from trying new ideas, including finding solutions for masks that might end up as litter. A Dutch company called Marie Bee Bloom sells rice paper masks with hundreds of flower seeds pressed between the layers. If they end up in a park or a flower pot, the paper soon disintegrates, allowing the seeds to sprout. Marie Bee Bloom’s staff of 30 has made about 70,000 masks this year—by hand—which are sold for about €2.6 ($3) each across Europe. Although the masks don’t have medical certification, that’s in the works, says Marianne de Groot-Pons, the graphic artist who started the company. “Nobody wanted to wear masks, they were being littered on the streets, and I wanted to change the story and message around masks,” she says. “The masks we have to wear can turn into something beautiful that’s good for the planet.”
Indian startups have also adopted the idea, putting seeds of tomatoes, okra, and other vegetables into face coverings made from recycled cloth—though some critics say there’s a risk of seeding invasive species if the masks hitch a ride on an airplane. De Groot-Pons insists her seeds aren’t invasive, just ordinary blooms such as poppies, corn flowers, and petunias.
In Vietnam, ShoeX, a footwear manufacturer-turned-mask maker, sells what it bills as the world’s first face covering made from coffee. The mask features woven coffee yarn for its outer layer and a biodegradable filter made with coffee beans and silver nanotechnology. In Florida, Elo Industries Inc. sells a disposable mask it says is made from bioplastics including corn and cassava. And in the U.K., the Pure Option website carries masks made from corn-based plastic and sustainable paper.
“We need masks to be reusable where possible, but many of us will still use and prefer disposable ones,” says Yeen Seen Ng, founder of think tank Centre for Research, Advisory and Technology, which advises Southeast Asian governments on sustainability plans. “We need biodegradable mask innovation and technologies to tackle the pollution challenge.”
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