The Archaeology of the Disposable Mask

And the case for wearing one that’s reusable.

A blue surgical mask in the dirt.
A mask that didn’t make it to a trash can. Ronan Houssin/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Just two feet from the trash can lay the blue disposable, surgical mask, in stark contrast to the grimy pink sidewalk beneath it. I paused to ponder this tableau of the pandemic period.

Three-ply surgical masks, like the one I spied, are designed for safety but also disposability, which should involve placement in a trash can. Yet, I now encounter them dispersed across supermarket parking lots, outside the entrance to my home, along the path to the beach.

No longer bound for the landfill, I know what the future holds for these masks. I live in Miami Beach, a coastal city that is experiencing the effects of climate change and rising sea level; the boundaries between land and sea are fluid. Come the next hurricane or king tide, the masks I see tossed to the curb will likely become so much flotsam and jetsam in Miami’s waterways. They might join the marine debris constituting the five great garbage patches accumulating in the planet’s oceans or wash up on distant shores. The ear loops, unless they’ve been prudently snipped, might entangle the legs of unsuspecting seabirds. The plastic contained within these surgical masks—their filters are woven from polypropylene—makes the outcome of masks adrift in the ocean especially distressing.

As an archaeologist, I can tell you that plastics are uniquely dissimilar from the materials with which humans have historically worked. In past millennia, we’ve made tools and adornments from natural resources like bone, stone, clay, wood or metal. Artifacts made from organic materials may preserve intact in certain contexts, but more often than not biodegrade, safely returning to the earth. The best-case scenario for artifacts made from plastics—human-made, synthetic polymers invented for mass production—is that they make their way to a landfill. This fate, however, is far from ideal. Archaeological investigations of contemporary landfills have already revealed that decomposition slows down dramatically in these settings. So, masks will remain buried and inert, taking up space for centuries to come.

The disposable mask that stays intact is troubling, but less so than the one that decomposes, especially when this process occurs outside of a landfill. In nature, masks may experience photodegradation. Exposed to sunlight, the bonds of plastic artifacts break down into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics. Such deterioration, scientists have found, works to fragment plastics but does not necessarily remove them from the environment. At the beach or on the sea’s surface, areas known as photic zones, plastic waste decomposes at an accelerated rate. Bits of plastic waste are swallowed by marine life, who mistake them for food. Scientists have discovered microplastic fibers in the digestive system of a crustacean from nearly 7,000 meters deep in the Mariana Trench; they christened the species Eurythenes plasticus. When fish closer to the surface eat microplastics, they in turn may be eaten by humans. This is a problem because degraded plastics can absorb high concentrations of toxic metals, like mercurylead, and cadmium, as well as other chemical pollutants.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the world’s single-use plastic problem. Plastic has proliferated in the name of safety. Cleaning products and sanitizers come in plastic containers, as does restaurant takeout food. Plastic bags have replaced reusable ones at supermarkets, even reappearing in California where they had been previously banned. Industry lobbyists cite safety and health, arguing that plastic offers a supply of fresh, uncontaminated objects; however, this claim is not substantiated by public health experts, who do not see surface transmission of the virus as a major concern. There’s also money to be made in plastic. While the recycling industry had faltered even before the pandemic, big oil has pivoted to plastic production, seeing an opportunity to recoup losses in a new world order that involves less commuting and traveling.

Much of this plastic waste will be disposed of improperly. As noted in a July statement by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development: “Our streets, beaches and ocean have been hit by a tidal wave of COVID-19 waste including plastic face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles and food packaging.” The statement estimates that 75 percent of pandemic-related plastic waste will end up in landfills and the sea. In the latter setting, the negative effects will be dramatic. According to UNCTAD, marine plastic pollution takes an economic toll on tourism, fisheries, and maritime transports, of about $40 billion a year; this deficit will further batter industries already affected financially by the coronavirus. The economy can recover, however. Environmental impacts are more concerning because they are irreversible. Once microplastics are floating in the sea, they are currently impossible to collect.

We need to prevent pandemic plastics from getting into the environment in the first place. Limiting the use of surgical masks to situations where something disposable is truly needed, like in health care settings, may be one small way to do so. Clearly, masks help curb coronavirus transmission by reducing the amount of respiratory viruses emitted in droplets and aerosols. Incentives may help members of the public switch to wearing reusable ones. Imagine if health insurance companies supplied sturdy reusable masks and underwrote the costs as preventive health care. Alternatively, the federal government could mail every American a set of reusable masks. Or, local governments could give them out at designated public locations, as New York City briefly did this spring. Any of these steps would make it easier to acquire masks that will safeguard others and the environment. And, if people choose to layer their reusable masks with plastic polypropylene filters as an extra precaution, there is a greater chance filters’ disposal will occur in residential trash bins and not on sidewalks.

Beyond the environmental benefits, there are other important reasons to buy and wear washable, reusable masks. By purchasing handmade masks, you can support small businesses and companies donating proceeds to pandemic relief. The nonprofit organization A Zero Waste Culture, for instance, employs women from socio-economically vulnerable communities to sew reusable masks from repurposed cotton fabrics. The pandemic is not ending anytime soon, so a reusable mask would be a good investment. Nondisposable masks simply fit and feel better to wear, and they allow you to express sartorial choices. (My favorite is the mustache mask for purchase on the Etsy shop LittleThingsNstuffCo.) Wearing a washable, reusable mask shows that you care about other humans, as well as mammals, birds, fish, coral, and living organisms, in general. The idea of a deep-sea creature deserving of a new taxonomic designation inspired by the microplastic fiber in its hindgut makes you simultaneously marvel and mourn, says the fabric mask.

Centuries from now, archaeologists may unearth a stratigraphic layer of plastic waste—buried in landfills, scattered across landscapes, preserved within the digestive systems of extinct species. Disposable masks will clearly mark this Pandemic Period in the Age of Plastics. Of course, what the future’s archaeological record will show is still indeterminate, but wearing a mask made of cloth is one way to make it a little less full of plastic.