Face mask waste
Photo: Kasey Furutani

Disposable face masks are polluting the environment – here’s what you can do to help

Reusable cloth masks are an eco-friendly option for reducing exposure to coronavirus

Kasey Furutani
Written by
Kasey Furutani

In this new world order shaped by the Covid-19 coronavirus, face masks have become a daily essential, but there looms an unintended side effect. The huge spike in the consumption of single-use disposable masks by the public is causing increased ocean pollution, adding to the already large amounts of single-use plastic and other waste that end up in the sea.

As reported by The Guardian, French environmental group Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) refers to the dozens of surgical gloves, face masks and hand sanitiser bottles that suddenly turn up in the Mediterranean Sea as ‘Covid waste’. Group member Laurent Lombard goes further, saying, ‘soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.’

Governments throughout the world are battling coronavirus by requiring people to wear face masks, but the used masks are too readily thrown away, washing up on the beaches of Hong Kong and littering the sidewalks of Tokyo.

However, that’s no excuse to stop wearing masks. Now you can have your cake and eat it too – switch to reusable face masks while also keeping yourself and others safe. 

Opt for reusable masks 

The World Health Organisation now recommends wearing a face mask in areas with high population density or in places where social distancing is impossible, like on crowded trains. Reusable cloth face masks have become this year’s unlikely fashion item: Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami recently released a line of flower-adorned masks and Uniqlo will follow suit with a machine-washable mask made from its proprietary quick-drying Airism material.

Here are a few more ways to make your own or purchase reusable masks:

Try a face shield, too

Clear plastic face shields aren't an alternative to face masks, but in Japan, some people are using them as an additional form of protection. Sure, the shield is made from plastic, but at least you can disinfect and wipe down the cover after every use instead of trashing it. Face shields are incredibly easy to DIY; all you need is a sturdy piece of plastic, like an A4 folder. Follow artist Tokujin Yoshioka, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch designer, to make a quick and easy face shield that even has a small cut-out to attach your glasses. 

Make sure your mask lasts

Don’t walk around with a petri dish strapped to your face – make sure to wash your mask after every use. It’s best to have a few masks available so you can wash them daily. It’s also a great excuse to get more facial accessories to match your wardrobe. 

See our up-to-date guide on going out safely in Tokyo, including the latest social distancing advice.

Most popular on Time Out Tokyo

These are the least crowded places in Tokyo

Try Blue Bottle's first craft beer on tap

Ikea is opening a new Tokyo store near Shibuya Crossing

Tokyo’s karaoke bars are reopening with new safety rules

A Harry Potter theme park is coming to Tokyo in 2023

Latest news