In Search of A Greener Mask
Bloomberg Businessweek|December 27, 2021 - January 03, 2022 (Double Spread)
Expanded use during the pandemic has companies racing to develop biodegradable face coverings
K. Oanh Ha

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 CokeHamilton 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.

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