Updated: Jun 13, 2021
While one of the most common images from the COVID-19 pandemic is the face of a loved one covered by a facemask, perhaps an equally common image is the very same facemask littering the ground, left as trash by the wearer who abandoned it.
If Shield U can bring its design to market, those masks would safely and naturally degrade—helping to solve one of the world’s biggest problems in plastic waste.
“Just imagine everyone wears those blue facemasks once and then throws it away,” said Manreet Brar, a student of public health at Oregon State University. “Think about, you know, where that goes and what that does to the environment.”
The problem, like the pandemic, is global in scale. According to some estimates, more than 1.5 billion facemasks produced and used to response to the health crisis could wind up in the oceans before the pandemic is over, exacerbating an already challenging concentration of plastic waste in the marine ecosystem.
Shield U’s masks would offer a powerful counterpoint to the sustainability challenge of traditional facemasks—which have been touted for the past year as the most useful protection for a relatively virulent airborne pathogen.
Traditional masks are fabricated with polypropylene, a fibrous form of plastic that carries the compound’s characteristic resistance to decomposition over time. Shield U’s masks, on the other hand, will be created with a sustainable material that decomposes naturally.
Brar expects to use bamboo for its cost-effectiveness and ease of cultivation. “There are many different resources, many different materials that I could use,” Brar said. “I chose bamboo because, from a business perspective, it is a renewable resource. It's cost effective. Bamboo tends to grow really fast within a few months.”
Its ease of cultivation is a major selling point, and Brar expects that a biodegradable mask will perform every bit as well as a traditional polypropylene mask. “I'd have to look more into the materials I use and how that's being done, how that would affect human health. But I highly doubt that there will be a lot of risks,” Brar said.
Furthermore, the health risks of COVID-19 overshadow a threat every bit as urgent as the pandemic: environmental degradation. And Brar is well aware.
“There are seven billion people in this world. And imagine every single one of those people wore a disposable face mask every single day for a year and a half,” Brar said. “So think about how many masks will be out in the open in the oceans. With that in mind, those numbers scare me.”