One of the unforeseen harms of the pandemic has been pollution. Although people staying at home for a year were able to reduce their waste outputs, a new, very harmful pollutant sprung up in the form of disposable masks. With people having to use masks at least one or two times a day the amount of waste began to pile up. Amidst a flurry of national research into the issue a group of ETHS students including Tommy Hughes, Elijah DeMarte, and Nick Ghate sent out a survey to get information on how many disposable masks ETHS students were using. They planned to use their information to discourage students from wearing disposable masks, but Omicron threw a wrench in their plans. New data showed that disposable masks were much safer when it came to Omicron. Now they’re looking for a way to balance safety and waste reduction. In an interview with Hughes, he explained their entire process to me.
Why did you start your investigation into disposable masks?
The project was given to us by our teacher Doc.V. It’s about taking action towards a common issue that we’re facing as a world that can have significant local impacts, and also makes use of aspects of STEM, and like other fields of science, that can be used to attack the problem.
What did your team do to try to address the issue of disposable masks becoming pollutants?
So our initial plan, we took a survey, and we gathered the statistics and put together a website that put it all together. We did a local scale and a national scale. We were planning on distributing flyers, but as we were doing this Omicron was blowing up [and] a lot more research came out about the safety of using cloth masks because that’s really what we were trying to get people to do — use reusable masks instead — because those are a one and done kind of thing, you buy once and that’s kind of the extent of your contribution [to waste]. But when more research came out about the difference in protection levels we were kind of left in a tightrope situation where we don’t want to be unsafe about COVID and tell people [to] wear reusable masks when we know that they might not be the safest option. But at the same time we don’t want to be burning through [thousands] of masks a week.
What inspired you to look into masks specifically?
Specifically why we chose the mask issue was just how prevalent it was because you could see it everywhere. I mean, you could see everyone wearing them, I personally was using a lot of masks, and also you could just see them on the ground when you were walking down the street. You could see them everywhere. It kind of seemed like an overlooked issue amongst the pandemic. So I think that’s sort of what led us to the idea.
What was your initial research into disposable mask usage like?
We had a little bit of background, but we looked further into it, and we found actual numbers. We’re obviously not the first people to address the issue, so [we were] just looking at what had been talked about and what the numbers were looking like for mass production [of disposable masks]. Seeing that also further pushed us for why we thought it was a good project, because finding out how truly severe the problem was made it seem like it was a valuable issue to worry about.
So what actually makes it so harmful to litter disposable masks?
Well, it’s just really about the release of microplastics – which was actually kind of a surprise to me. You don’t look at a mask and think ‘plastic.’ That might be one of the reasons why people don’t think about it, because it doesn’t seem like it would have harmful effects. Obviously throwing any kind of trash on the ground [is harmful] but it has a bigger effect than one would think because of harmful micro-plastics.
What do you want to do to combat this wastefulness?
Really our main concern is informing. I think that the fact that we didn’t know that much about it is kind of why we thought it was important. Because no one really knows about it — or it’s not that people don’t know about it, but no one’s really talking about it. And so I think the main gist of our project is just to get people talking about it. No one wants to contribute so much to like waste production, and so if people get that switch turned on in their head to take into account how many masks they’re really using, they might be aware of that and try to limit it.
How did the introduction of Omicron affect your process?
The Omicron Variant really highlighted one of the most important parts of the scientific process; the fact that as annoying as it might be you have to take into account new developments and new portions of science and not can the [project] entirely but use the new information to develop a more fine tuned solution that’s not ignorant of what is now known. Like in this example, we don’t want to be advocating for something that puts people at risk when we know that that’s the case.
How are you planning to move forward?
I think a lot of the concerns with cloth masks are about the kinds that people are wearing. There are types of reusable masks that are safer. They’re not to the extent of a surgical mask, but close enough to it where it’s not enough to warrant significant concern, especially because there’s other things like the way that people wear masks that l is much more of a problem than a 5% difference in the type of mask. There’s some biodegradable options. Those are pretty expensive though so at the moment, that’s a pretty infeasible solution. But I think filtration reusable masks, where something can be inserted into a mask to provide that extra level of protection — as much as that’s waste produced, it’s significantly less, and the waste itself is less damaging and not nearly as significant as an entire mask — so I think that’s where we’re going. But also efforts to pick masks up is what we’re going to be looking for. At least not throwing them on the ground and leaving them around.
How can ETHS students help become part of the solution
I think just be aware of the problem. Understand that, as much as like we’re getting our way through a difficult time we need to also be aware of the repercussions of what we’re doing. So think about your own impact.