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The Future of Face Masks: Fad or Here to Stay?

The hottest accessory of 2020 is also one of the most controversial. It wasn’t a new wearable from Apple or an exclusive pair of kicks from Kanye West. 2020 is the year of the mask and there’s no business like mask business. From shortages and price gouging to involvement from tech startups and high fashion, masks have been everywhere this year. Except for when they weren’t and it was a huge, life or death problem. What does the future of face masks look like?

In January, before Covid-19 spread beyond China, one Chinese mask manufacturer saw demand explode to over 200 million masks per day compared to its normal production rate of 400,000 a day, an increase of 500 times. Around the same time, 3M, manufacturer of the N95 mask, ramped up to maximum production of N95s, doubling global output to a rate of 1.1 billion per year, or 100 million per month. The company is now geared up to double production capacity once again, to 2 billion globally within the next 12 months.

According to 3M, ”in the United States, we expect to be producing N95 respirators at a rate of 50 million per month in June, a 40 percent increase from current levels…This is not just a 3M challenge; it’s an industry-wide challenge. Even with 3M’s accelerated production combined with capacity from other manufacturers, the reality is that demand for N95 respirators is much higher than the industries’ ability to deliver.” In March, the World Health Organization estimated that 89 million additional disposable masks were needed globally per month to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19 in medical settings.

Who stepped up to fill that additional demand? Apparently lots of people. Etsy reported that $346 million worth of masks were sold on it’s platform during the pandemic. 4 million people came to Etsy for masks alone and 112,000 different sellers made money by selling those masks on the platform. If “masks” were listed as their own product category in Etsy’s financial results, they’d rank third on the entire site for Q2.

Yet mask shortages persist. “The dramatically increased demand is not going away anytime soon,” said Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association. “Churches, schools, businesses, everyone that’s trying to reopen needs PPE, and we’re all competing for the same small supply.” It’s not just hospitals, states and federal officials vying for PPE now. Smaller operations from cash-strapped schools to independent businesses are entering the market.

As masks will be in high demand for the foreseeable future, the environmental impact of both disposable and reusable masks adds another layer of complexity to the question of what the future of face masks will look like. Despite millions of people being told to use face masks, minimal guidance has been offered on how to dispose of or recycle them safely. And as lockdown restrictions end, billions of masks will be needed globally each month. Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming.

A recent paper by the Plastic Waste Innovation Hub at University College London has estimated demand for disposable masks in the UK at 24.7 billion masks per year. More startling is the potential environmental impact of the disposable masks. “If every person in the UK used one disposable surgical mask each day for a year, this would create over 128,000 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic waste.” Assuming that same rate of waste for the populations of the 15 countries with the most Covid-19 cases would mean an additional 5.3 million tons of annual unrecyclable plastic waste production. 

Humans currently produce over 300 million tons of plastic waste each year which is almost equal to the weight of the entire human population. According to the United Nations, if current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050. 

Covid-19 is not the last pandemic humanity will have to endure. Some leading scientists believe that the future will hold even more dangerous pandemics if we don’t make major efforts to improve the health of the planet. According to the scientists behind the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)’s Global Assessment Report, considered the most comprehensive assessment of global nature loss ever, “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.” In order for the future of face masks to be a sustainable one, something significant must change.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs and enterprises are attempting to innovate in the mask category. Electronics giant LG recently announced plans to make a battery-powered air-purifying face. A Swiss startup called HMCARE has raised a million Swiss Francs to commercialize its transparent and relatively eco-friendly surgical masks. Alice Chun, inventor of the Patent for Humanity award winning SolarPuff, created the SEEUS95 mask, a transparent and reusable respirator mask with the filtration efficiency of the N95. Chun, a material technology specialist, was disturbed by the amount of waste being created by disposable masks and N95s.

“In addition to the environmental harms of masks, I was really concerned about the psychological harms of a masked world. Our identities and our humanity are linked to our faces. We miss a piece of ourselves and each other when we can’t share a smile with one another. With everything going on in the world, we could all use more smiles,” Chun explained to me. The SEEUS95 launched on Kickstarter and met its funding goal in less than 24 hours and has since raised over 10x more than the original goal. Transparency in masks is especially important for the hearing impaired and for use around babies and young children, who develop speech skills by seeing others speak.

Face masks are here to stay. Due to pathogen and privacy concerns, more and more people will opt in to wearing masks even after the Covid-19 pandemic stabilizes. Given this new normal, the face mask is experiencing something it hasn’t had in decades, innovation, and that’s a good thing. Even amidst a global pandemic, humans still have the resourcefulness and creativity to wonder and discover. There’s reason to believe the future of face masks will be less harmful than the past.