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Green Is The New Black

Protecting Our Breath: Are Face Masks The New Normal?

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Woman wearing face mask

In recent months, face masks have been subject to a broad range of critique. We take a look at mask usage in a number of situations, from wildfires to pandemics, and the way that disposable medical waste impacts the environment.

The past five years of my life have been marked by the need and reliance on face coverings to protect my basic health. However, face coverings have rarely been accessible, culturally accepted (at least, in the Western world), or sustainable. Increasing information is circulating about how we might best protect our respiratory tracts from toxins, pollutants, and most recently, viruses, and masks have become the most accessible ‘measure’ of doing so. But just how accessible and sustainability are they? Is there a future in wearing masks? 

California fire season

It was 2019. I woke up early one foggy October morning in Berkeley, California, and decided to head to my favourite cafe before class. After ordering coffee, I gazed out of the window and noticed that I could no longer see the shops on the other side of the road, the ‘fog’ had thickened and taken on an odd yellow tinge. It was still early enough in the morning that there weren’t many people out, but the ones who were had on scarves or surgical masks. I checked the news and confirmed my suspicions: there was a fire in nearby Sonoma County, and the wind patterns were pushing smoke over the San Pablo bay, covering Berkeley and Oakland with toxic black fumes. 

Over the next few days, social media petitions flooded my feed, pleading with the university to close down until the smoke had cleared, and students could travel safely to campus. The air quality index measured 150 fine particulate micrograms per cubic metre (classified as hazardous to inhale– for reference, the AQI in Wellington, New Zealand, this morning on the 15th of August 2020 is 19). N95 masks had sold out at every pharmacy and hardware store, so I biked to and from school and work with a flimsy bandana that slipped below my nose, passing by homeless folks on the side of the road who were pulling similar tricks. Dirty, broken masks lined the gutters.

With little to no notice, the state’s power service, PG&E, announced a string of scheduled power outages in order to prevent their archaic, damaged structures from sparking dry grass and spreading increasingly uncontainable wildfires (the previous year, a faulty PG&E transmission line had ignited the Butte County Camp Fire, which destroyed over 153,000 acres of land in the deadliest and most destructive weather phenomenon in Californian history). Our newsfeeds were filled with stories about elderly civilians dying as their life-saving ventilators were unexpectedly shut off, only to find that another PG&E transmission tower had sparked up the latest set of fires. A friend and I, who had managed to get our hands on some used N95s from the health centre joked that we were dressed for a ‘pandemic’, not summer. Meanwhile, my parents were calling me from back home to report that Australian bushfire smoke had travelled the 2500 kilometres across the Tasman Sea to turn glaciers in New Zealand brown and that Australians were trapped in the ocean as the fled for safety. It was only a month or two later that the first reports of a mysterious new respiratory illness had emerged, our throats burning with the attack from all angles.

The politicisation of masks

Masks have become so saturated with symbolism, controversy, and opinion in 2020 that, for some, it is difficult to remember that they were designed with the intention of preventing infection. We can attribute much of this confusion to the way that governments portray them to the public. In a Vox article, Doctor Murtaza Akhter of the University of Arizona explained that “the best treatment [for COVID-19] is prevention, and there are very good data to show how effective masks are” but at the same time, some world leaders are telling a different story.

In the United States, President Donald Trump has advocated against mask use on Twitter and in person, implying that facial protection is neither tough, strong, nor ‘American’, and frequently appearing at and hosting public events free of protection. His allegations are backed up by other political figures such as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who has banned cities and counties from creating mask requirements and even taken Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to court over the issue. These political moves occur alongside many civilian concerns about mask usage. But on other occasions, Trump has also spoken out about the beneficial impact of wearing masks, consequently forcing American citizens to do the research for themselves, with no stable ideology to look for when it comes to keeping the virus at bay.

“Not everybody can pore through papers like I can as a physician and a researcher,” Akhter said. For many laypeople, “they’re going to listen to what their President says, even if their own experts are saying otherwise.” It doesn’t help that the spectacle of the United States government system is highly visible around the world, and many of the anti-mask allegations have a trickle-down effect into other countries, for example, informing the leaders of this Anti-Lockdown” protest in New Zealand’s Whangārei on Thursday, after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern put the country back into lockdown after four cases emerged in the community. 

The social context of mask-wearing

In addition, the social implications of wearing masks have revealed sinister, racist pathologies prolific in many “Western” societies. Kenneth Leong, the director of a New Zealand-based, reusable mask company called MEOair, says the surge in the market for masks caught him by surprise. MEOair produces anti-pollution masks aimed at markets in China, India, and Southeast Asia, but have seen a spike in local sales during the Australian bushfire crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. “We don’t think we’ll ever have a sizeable market in New Zealand because culturally, people don’t wear masks here. It’s just not a very Kiwi thing to do.” He explains that while sales are up, there is still a negative stereotype attached to facial coverings that is pervasive in New Zealand culture.

“If you’re Asian and you’re out at a mall with a mask on, people will start glaring and may distance themselves,” he said. “One reason for wearing a mask is to be anonymous. But here, it’s the complete opposite. By donning a mask, you’re drawing even more attention to yourself.” His statement underlines the importance of science and accessibility to respected information. During the past week, as New Zealand re-enters lockdown after a 102-day streak free of COVID-19, mask usage has been highly encouraged by the health minister. In contrast to the approach taken during the first outbreak in March. At once I noticed a significantly higher amount of people wearing masks in the community. It does appear that the more people are informed about sustainable mask usage, the less unfamiliar the process becomes.

Sustainability

When it comes to the environment, it is important that we take into consideration the impact that disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) has on global pollution. At this stage, most PPE is disposable by necessity. As scientists move quickly to manage the spread of the virus, safe alternatives haven’t yet been found so it is necessary to dispose of contaminated articles in order to best protect our healthcare professionals. Incinerating used PPE remains the most effective method of removal, however, this has had a significant impact on the volume of toxic fumes being pumped into the atmosphere. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency was forced to relax its rules on burning plastics to accommodate the sheer volume of disposable medical waste.

This waste has spiked significantly around the world, increasing, for example, in Wuhan from 40-50 tonnes per day to 247 during the peak of its crisis, and similar findings have been reported in the cities Bangkok, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, and Hanoi. For medical professionals, disposable PPE is a necessity. But for the rest of us, disposable face masks are creating a significant waste problem. In Singapore and Hong Kong, it’s now a common sight to see masks wash ashore, exacerbating the single-use waste issue plaguing the coastlines of each respective country.

However, there are many options for reusable masks that are effective and, well, cute. We have to start somewhere, right? It is true that disposable masks provide users with a sense of security: once worn and disposed of, it feels like you are disposing of the virus itself. However, highlighted by my experience in the California fires, face protection is not only useful in a medical context, and using face coverings to protect against other types of pollutants is a very real possibility in a post-COVID-19 climate. Professor Theanne Schiros of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and innovator at this year’s One X One sustainability initiative states that “a big issue with sustainability is not that we don’t have enough resources or materials. It’s that they’re not properly distributed and the effects of human activities are not equally distributed.” Into the future, we must normalise not only mask-wearing as a social and health-forward function, but also make sure that we are using products in the most conscious and ethical ways. This article points out the revenue that a Nature-led Coronavirus recovery plan could generate, which may motivate many governments and companies to make big green moves. However, it remains that sustainability is continuously a joint effort.

Ultimately, the loaded debate around facial coverings has the ability to change the way we think about our health and, in turn, the planet’s health– if it’s so inconvenient to wear a mask, perhaps we should consider the root of the problem, which might be under our feet and in the air we breathe: it is not news that our environment responds to the way we treat it. Now is the time to join together and conquer this issue collectively.

#LittleGreenSteps

As you know, keeping up to date with the most recent information about sustainable and effective mask usage is crucial during a global health crisis. Here are a few suggestions you can use to make your own effective, cute, and reusable masks. If you’re not feeling crafty, stock up on reusable face masks instead of disposables.

In addition, supporting local causes, depending on where you are in the world, can have a significant impact on the trajectory of natural phenomenons and our ability to respond to them. For example, all donations to the California Fire Fund are directed to fire safety resources in communities across California, providing aid to those affected by fire, and supporting the families of fallen fighters, many of whom are unpaid or underpaid prisoners.

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Theressa is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand with a strong interest in the relationship between people, land, and literature.

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