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Environmental impact of disposable surgical masks and wet wipes

Masks and wipes are mostly made from nonwoven fabrics, which are based on plastic fiber. These face masks are made of polyamide (PA), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). In most cases, polypropylene (PP) are used for makings surgical mask.

Non-woven masks are better than those are made of cotton and polyester. Because they contain small pores between the fibers where airborne particles can get trapped. So, they can block the wearer’s coughs, give good security and comfort.

Figure: Environmental pollution is the world’s greatest problem nowadays and the high use of non-woven is mainly polluting the environment.

Cotton and polyester masks are slightly less effective, but they are still able to block at least 80% of droplets. So, nonwoven surgical masks give two times more protection than woven masks. Manufacturers mainly prefer to use biodegradable plastics such as PBS to make surgical masks. And this technology is easy to use on an industrial scale.

Wet wipes are single-use cleaning tissues or towels which are moistened. They are made from synthetic fiber, like polyester and were invented in the US in 1958. Billions of wet wipes are used in the world regularly. As the majority of wet wipes are manufactured with plastic, they are harmful to the environment.

When the COVID-19 issue hits, the use of disposable surgical masks and wet wipes had been increases. There are about 129 billion masks and used every month in the world. And also the use of antibacterial wet wipes increased for cleaning surfaces and hands.

Environmental pollution is the world’s greatest problem nowadays. The high use of non-woven is mainly polluting our environment. Nonwovens are not easy to decompose with the disturbance of the water body. They take a very long time to degrade. During a pandemic, there’s a priority to protect people from the virus.

A huge number of disposable surgical masks are randomly discarded in the city lanes, blocking the sewage pipes, etc. The pollutants are often linked to dyes used in producing the masks. They can release harmful chemical substances, such as bisphenol A, dye and heavy metals.

The disposable surgical masks and wet wipes can also affect humans. Discarded wipes and masks have respiratory secretions that contain many bacteria, even harmful pathogens. At present, a trace of microplastics has been found in a variety of human foods, including seafood, sea salt, drinking water, etc. The damage was caused by oxidative stress in cerebral and epithelial human cell lines as observed in vitro research using polyethylene and polystyrene microplastics.

In the post-era of global COVID-19, disposable masks and wipes, as new sources of environmental microplastic fiber pollution. And, the pandemic isn’t going away overnight. The use of masks and wipes will become the norm for a long time to come.

One solution is replacing plastics with environment-friendly, non-toxic, biodegradable and recyclable alternatives. Instead of manufacturing disposable masks with plastic, use natural fibers, such as rice husk, jute, or other sustainable fiber.

And another solution is the reusable mask strategy which would cause a reduction in cost and waste in the environment. If people start to reuse N95 masks that will decontaminate with hydrogen peroxide or ultraviolet light, costs would drop to $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion over six months, and 13 million to 18 million kilograms of waste would result.

N95 are gradually weakened by moisture. They are made from synthetic plastic fibers, usually polypropylene (PP). But N95 is not disposable. Though it can reduce the use of plastic. Normally non-woven surgical masks lose their strength after wash. But N95 can survive after several washes. This mask retains its performance even after water immersion and also maintains good performance for a long time. The masks are designed so they can be sterilized with heat or bleach and reused many times.

As the wipes market continues to expand with new and unique applications. It is focusing on producing products based on natural ingredients or with a more sustainable. The world’s largest supplier of nonwovens to the wipes market are launching the plastic-free, biodegradable and environmentally friendly nonwovens.

A Japanese company has developed the world’s first paper-based lid for wet wipes packaging. This development can eliminate around 80% of the plastics from wet wipes packaging. So the development of sustainable products can fulfill consumer demands.

If anyone has any feedback or input regarding the published news, please contact: info@textiletoday.com.bd

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