Masks are great when it comes to protecting us from disease, but how does it affect the environment? With the increase of mask use globally due to COVID-19, I often see masks being carelessly thrown away which made me wonder whether it is okay for them to be left roaming on the streets and in our oceans. I decided to review Wecolor’s 3Ply Disposable Face Masks, as they are a popular and extremely affordable choice—with almost twenty thousand Amazon reviews and a pack of one hundred available for only $9.99.
Overall, these disposable masks are not sustainable as they contribute to the loads of waste building up in on our earth and in our landfills. Since non-woven fabric is derived from plastic, it is non-biodegradable and contributes to both microplastic and microfiber pollution. Wecolor’s masks are widely used, clearly making enough profits to work towards sustainability. However, they fail to show any initiative to become more eco-friendly which is troubling. Wecolor, as well as other mask-making companies, should begin to focus more on providing more sustainable ways to protect from viruses. A great alternative to disposable masks is a reusable and washable cloth mask. Whimsy + Row’s Washable Mask is $10 and is made with locally sourced and leftover textiles. With each purchase, a mask is given to someone in need!
These Wecolor masks are made of non-woven fabric. Non-woven fabrics are sheet or web-like structures produced mechanically, thermally, or chemically. It is made from fibers, molten plastic, and or plastic film. Already, we know that this material is not biodegradable since it is made from plastic. Additionally, non-woven fabrics are durable and made for single-use which contributes to waste and plastic pollution. Due to the pandemic, there was a massive increase in mask-use and as a result is causing the increasing pollution of our land and sea.
In comparison to woven fabrics such as nylon or polyester, non-woven fabric is considered more sustainable because it is not as resource-heavy to produce and impacts the environment less in its manufacturing. However, non-woven fabric is still derived from plastic and therefore non-biodegradable, making it an overall unsustainable choice.
An alternative to using non-woven fabric could be cotton, as it is a renewable resource less harmful to the environment. However, it does take an excessive amount of water and other resources to produce, so there is no perfect alternative (yet).
Non-woven fabric is a web-like structure made from the entanglement of fibers using a variety of methods. The fibrous web structures can be bonded through various processes. Needle punching interlocks fibers through the web with needles mounted on a board, stitch bonding uses knitting elements both with or without yarn, thermal bonding using heat and thermoplastic fiber, and hydro entanglement uses water jets to bind the fibers. The most common way to make the non-woven fabric for Wecolor’s masks is chemical bonding, which binds the fibers with latex using chemical processes. All of these processes cannot be sustainable as they take up a lot of energy and resources to carry out.
The fabric is then finished to adopt the properties it needs to fit the product. For these masks, they are likely finished to be water-resistant and bacterial resistant.
It is unclear what processes Wecolor uses to make their masks. Therefore it is difficult to gauge just how unsustainable their manufacturing practices are.
Wecolor’s masks are manufactured at Longhuashan Typing Village Industrial Park in Xiantao, China. The factory has over two hundred employees and specializes in non-woven fabrics. There are no details on Wecolor’s website or the manufacturer’s website regarding the working conditions of the employees. Based on what we know about garment factories in China, we can assume that their working conditions are far from adequate. The Chinese garment industry has an abusive working environment, with low wages and excessive and unpaid overtime. There are also health risks and no benefits (i.e. healthcare, social security). Wecolor’s manufacturers do not seem to be any different as they fail to provide any information on how they treat their factory employees. This lack of transparency is concerning, but not surprising.