Disposable Masks Must Go

Disposable Masks Must Go

Guest Op-Ed by ARCC Student Amra Mustafic

Evidently, face masks have become a necessity in today’s pandemic-struck world. Seeing everyone around you wearing face masks in public is a hopeful, heart-warming feeling. However, disposable medical masks, one of the most popular choices for face masks, aren’t as beneficial as you might think they are in terms of their effect on our planet.

While saving millions of lives from COVID-19, disposable masks are terrible for the environment. THE UN Environment Program (UNEP) stated that if this large increase of disposable, single-use plastics isn’t handled properly it may result in uncontrolled dumping (United Nations, 2020). Not only is it increasing pollution, an infected surgical mask can spread the virus to people and animals. “In certain conditions, the virus can survive on a plastic surgical mask for seven days” (Roberts, 2021).

The use of these disposable has become so normalized that most people don’t even think twice about using them. With many countries putting nation-wide mask mandates on public places, surgical masks (which can now be found at gas stations and free at the entrances to many buildings) have become a common way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.

A quick Google search can expose the dangers these disposable masks can cause long-term damage to animals and plants. Smothered environments and ecosystems forcefully broken up are a couple results of large amounts of plastic waste. Smaller animals can become entangled or suffocate in the material of disposable masks; Larger animals can also eat bits and pieces of these masks and over time become malnourished from their stomachs filling up with plastic waste (Roberts, 2021).

Larger issues like this one usually take a significant amount of time to research and come up with the best solution, but with disposable masks, our answer has been right under our noses since the beginning of this pandemic: Reusable face masks.

A reusable face mask is any face mask that can be infinitely washed and worn again. They’re more stylish, better for the environment, and catered to your exact preferences. They come in every color, style, thickness and material you could ask for. A lot of these reusable masks also have slots for (reusable) filters that can be inserted for extra protection. These reusable masks aren’t hard to get your hands on, either. Almost every single retail store I’ve been to since the pandemic is selling reusable face masks: Target, Walmart, Ulta, and Pacsun are just a few.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have already made the switch from disposable to reusable, and if you haven’t, it’s your turn. Say goodbye to our beloved medical masks that have gotten us through the pandemic thus far and make room for the reusable fashion statements so many have already adopted.

Works Cited

“Five Things You Should Know about Disposable Masks and Plastic Pollution | | UN News.” United Nations, United Nations, 30 July 2020, news.un.org/en/story/2020/07/1069151#:~:text=The%20potential%20consequences%2C%20says%20UNEP,transmission%20of%20diseases%20to%20humans.

Roberts, Keiron Philip, et al. “Coronavirus Face Masks: an Environmental Disaster That Might Last Generations.” The Conversation, 14 Jan. 2021, theconversation.com/coronavirus-face-masks-an-environmental-disaster-that-might-last-generations-144328.

Greening Your Holidays

The holiday season is upon us, and while we love the idea of sleeping in, spending time with family, and enjoying a few (or twenty) holiday cookies, the season is also ripe with waste.  According to the Centers for Disease Control “Americans throw away about 25% more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.”  Yikes!!  The good news is that there are a ton of great ideas and resources out there for making your holidays a little bit more green.  Here are some of our favorite suggestions!

Cut Down Your Food Waste

The holidays are a time filled with abundance, which frequently means that we prepare more food than we can actually eat, and/or we eat way more than we actually need.  While it’s understandable to want to indulge in the delights of the season, keep in mind that avoiding food waste will save you money and at the same time help the planet!  According to Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, “up to 35% of food in high-income economies is thrown out by consumers” (2017, 43).  Consider reducing the amount of food you make in the first place, but if you do have leftovers, get creative!  Can you make a turkey and wild rice soup with the leftover Thanksgiving turkey?  Would those potatoes be tasty on a Shepard’s Pie?  Be prepared to properly store leftover food in advance too–lots of foods freeze really well, and consider how great it would be to dig that Thanksgiving meal out of the freezer come late January!  In the event that you do have food waste, consider either backyard composting or organics recycling.  For more tips on food preparation and preservation in order to reduce food waste, check out Save the Food.

Source Your Food Locally

An assortment of beautiful, Minnesota-grown produce.

We’re privileged here in Minnesota to have a lot of amazing farmer’s markets as well as local options for sourcing sustainable foods, and while you may think that the arrival of cold weather means those options are off the table, think again!  Throughout the state there are Winter Farmers Markets, as well as opportunities to source directly from farmers.  The food miles that our turkeys, potatoes, and cranberries travel to get to our dinner table add up, as does their carbon footprint.  Locally sourced products from smaller scale farmers not only are frequently more sustainably raised/grown, but they also help to boost our local economy.  Looking to skip the turkey altogether this year and opt for a more plant based diet?  Thanks to Herbivorous Butcher, there are even local options for plant-based meat alternatives!  For more information on where to find local turkeys, wine, veggies, and more, check out Minnesota Grown.

Rethink Your Purchases (and Green Your Black Friday!)

According to the National Retail Federation, 165.3 million US consumers are expected to shop either online or in-store over the coming Thanksgiving weekend.  While we know that the deals are sometimes seemingly too good to pass up, the unfortunate reality is that our high levels of consumption are also leading to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions.  All of those televisions, iPhones, plastic toys, and clothes are embedded with materials that can be costly to our climate as well as environmentally burdensome to the communities producing them (externalized costs).  Instead of buying more things that you (or your family and friends) don’t actually need, consider these alternative gift-giving ideas:

Homemade Gifts: Breads, teas, hand-sewn clothes, canned goods, and upcycled items are thoughtful and sustainable alternatives – who doesn’t enjoy a gift made with love?

Experience Gifts: Buy your family members tickets to a movie, passes to go ice skating, or even a gift certificate for a massage.  Not only will they appreciate the lack of waste, you’ll also potentially be contributing to their wellness!

Buy Secondhand: While it may not be for everyone, previously loved items frequently still have a lot of life left in them and are less expensive then their newer cousins.  Worried your family won’t like that it’s used?  Just call it “vintage.”

Give an IOU ____________ Coupon: While things can be nice, who wouldn’t LOVE to come home to a clean house, be able to call upon a babysitter, or have help in their garden?  Give the gift of your time and energy in the form of a coupon for something your friends and family will truly appreciate.

Support a Cause: Consider donating a small amount to an organization that’s meaningful to the gift recipient.  Not only do you avoid producing waste, you’re supporting an awesome cause!

Buy Local: If you are going to buy something new, can you find it in a local store?  You’ll be supporting the local economy while also reducing the carbon footprint of shipping directly to your house.

Wrap Smarter

Map Wrapping is a super fun and cheap way to make your gifts stand out!

The aisles of Target are filled with adorable llama and RV-print wrapping paper, and while it may be tempting to snatch up the newest and cutest ones, keep in mind that they will likely be admired for all of 15 seconds before the excited recipients open their presents.  Consider saving money and cutting down waste by wrapping with items around your house.  Have an old map collection that you don’t mind parting with?  Maps make for awesome wrapping paper!  Done with the Sunday paper?  Cover your gifts with the funnies!  Have some old towels or handkerchiefs on hand?  Try out Furoshiki, the Japanese Art of Fabric Wrapping.  Finally, if you’re a die hard ribbon user, keep in mind that cloth ribbon can be used over and over again – after the unwrapping madness is over, collect your ribbons for reuse next year!

Traveling? Buy Carbon Offsets

Flying is unfortunately a huge source of our carbon emissions both in the U.S. and worldwide, and while driving is better, if you’re using petroleum you’re still emitting greenhouse gases.  One smart option might be to forego a trip altogether, but if your family is far away (as mine is), the holidays might be one of the only chances you have to see them.  While carbon offsets aren’t a perfect solution, they are one way to at least account for your emissions.  Interested in offsetting?  Check out this article from the New York Times on How to Buy Carbon Offsets.

Whether you choose to use natural decorations instead of plastic ones (remember: plastics are nearly always petroleum based, and therefore also have a high carbon footprint!), to make your holiday meals entirely plant-based, to stay home instead of traveling, or to wrap your gifts in magazine covers, keep in mind that your actions do have a collective impact, and your family and friends will notice!  After I asked for a sustainable bridal shower last year, my family chose to stop using plastic water bottles at family events and to instead buy reusable containers and cups.  It may not seem like you, as one person, can make a difference, but you can!  Happy Holidays to all, and may your days be merry and green!

The Costs of Copious Copying

Think back to your last “first day of class.”  You might have walked in, sat down, and been handed apaper syllabus 6-8 pages long (or more!  Professors can be long-winded!).  How often did you look back upon that syllabus over the course of the semester?

Professors, of course, hope that the answer is every single day, but in truth it was probably a couple of times throughout the semester.  What happened to that syllabus after the class ended?  Did you throw it away?  Did you recycle it?  Is it still stuffed somewhere in a folder, tucked into the back of the drawer, forgotten for the next twenty years (that’s where mine are…)?

Last year at Anoka-Ramsey the Sustainability Committee was contacted by our campus’s Central Services, who handles the printing for the college, to see if we could assist them in encouraging faculty to reduce their printing amounts.  Like everything it seems, the cost of printing was increasing, and if printing continued at the current rates there was a risk that departments might greatly exceed their printing budgets for the year (and this doesn’t even touch on the environmental costs of using so much paper).  The Sustainability Committee, led by Math Professor Christina Sonnek, decided to challenge departments to reduce their printing, and the results were somewhat staggering.  Compared to the same month the previous year, faculty managed to save 52,844 sheets of paper in August 2017 and 101,811 sheets of paper in September 2017, for a grand total of 154,655 sheets of paper saved!  If that wasn’t enough, the financial savings amounted to a massive $12,210.17!

A lot of paper frequently equates to a lot of money wasted.

How did they do it?  Some departments did choose to go entirely “paperless,” putting course documents on D2L Brightspace and other websites, but it’s important to remember that even small actions can have a huge impact.  The next time you need to print, consider:

  1. Can you put it online instead (quizzes, exams, notes, etc.)?
  2. If it needs to be printed, can you put it online and have students print it (eliminating the “extra” copies)?
  3. Set your default page margins to small (this uses 14% less paper!)
  4. Print double-sided–make this your default setting (Google how to do this or ask your friendly IT person)
  5. Change your line spacing to “Exactly,” and your spacing to 0 pt. when creating documents on Microsoft Word
  6. Can you have students turn it in online instead (via the Assignments folder in D2L Brightspace or turnitin.com, etc.)?
  7. If you need to write something down, can you use scrap paper instead?
  8.  If you need to print something small out, can you put it on a half sheet of paper instead?  Central Services even has a handy-dandy cutting service!   

Don’t forget, once it’s been printed, used, and is ready for disposal, RECYCLE it!  Even small actions can make a BIG difference!