Pandemic futures: disposable or reusable masks? // Daniel Sosna, Paul Keil and Luděk Brož

Disposable protective gear is saving us. It protects people not only in hospitals but also in retirement homes, supermarkets, and public transportation. Synthetic materials, cursed for poisoning the planet’s oceans in the form of microplastics few months ago, became unacknowledged heroes almost overnight. For how long will their rescue aura work? It is time to think about the consequences of global anti-Covid-19 policies in terms of their environmental impact. The case we want to consider is that of a face mask, one of the emblems of the current pandemics.

Allow us to play the devil’s advocate for a moment: Is it necessarily a mistake that many of the world’s governments have failed to produce and stockpile enough disposable protective gear for essential workers, let alone the general public?

The lack of supply certainly caused a serious problem for the medical staff, firefighters, police officers and soldiers, who have risked everyday exposure to the virus, sometimes equipped unsatisfactorily. And millions or rather billions of other people in the general public have been forced to resolve the lack of protective gear, especially face masks, on their own.

Yet interestingly, in many places the spark of grassroot creativity aided by widely circulated do-it-yourself manuals was so strong that home-made masks satisfied the demand within days. This was the case for example in the Czech Republic which made wearing masks obligatory in public spaces despite the critical shortage of disposable masks in the market. The masks therefore often emerged from old clothes using grandma’s sewing machines previously stored and forgotten in the basement. These materials and technology, long kept in a comatose state of near-waste limbo, were resuscitated and given new life in protective gear. Novel commodity and gift economies arose through these unexpected avenues of production and distribution, indices of grassroot creativity, resilience and solidarity.

Importantly, the textile gear is reusable. It just needs to be washed and ironed, and then it is ready to be worn again. Using reusable, homemade masks also meant learning new skills of hygiene maintenance. Further, making homemade masks became an arena for individual aesthetic expression that helped people to divert the pressing anxiety to make fun, look good, or simply keep a sense of normality in abnormal times.

Despite those benefits the home-made masks are often perceived as temporary way out of shortage of disposable masks. We have been so focused on lamenting the governments’ inability to provide enough facemasks, that we have neglected the solutions, skills, and opportunities that these inspired and improvised grassroots acts have presented to us. Ideas that contrast with our unquestioned expectation and demand for disposable, medical grade gear.

Now, imagine that governments across the globe did produce and hoard sufficient amounts of single use masks for everyone? That every person, every day, for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis used and threw away protective gear. Already, discarded protective gear is undergoing a polluting afterlife in various places such as Hong Kong beaches and English suburbs. Will we end up crawling through the waste of protective gear in the near future? In five hundred years, will synthetic masks be the geological marker of 2020-21?

Regimes of reusable protective technology

From this perspective, it seems that the “failure” of governments to supply unlimited amounts of disposable masks was also an opportunity to think outside of the box. The case of face masks has shown us that reuse is not simply a green ideology, but reuse can be a viable mechanism in times of crisis, especially since this crisis will possibly stay with us for the foreseeable future.

It is possible that until a vaccination is secured, Covid-19 related measures will remain in place, relaxing and tightening according to shifting infection rates and epidemiological situation. It is also likely – as has been argued before and during the crisis – that humankind in the future will again face the threat of pandemics caused by other microbial agents.

Unfortunately, it is also apparent that the reaction of many governments will be the blind support of an industry producing disposable protective gear. Single-use products are the most obvious and well-established solution for hygiene. Indeed, even now we hear news reports of increased international production of N95 masks and see news images of local police officers in different countries distributing disposable gear on the street. The demand for their production will continue if we do not imagine the scope for alternatives and challenge the idea that medical grade disposable masks are the best and only option for every situation.

In relation to our pandemic future, there will clearly be a need for governments to increase the stockpiling of face masks and protective gear. And we expect that manufacturing industries will be ramping up production to meet this demand. We suggest that while doing so governments and industry should avoid unquestioned dependence on established approaches. We instead should begin exploring the possibilities of producing regimes of reusable protective technologies, building upon the innovative grassroots responses like those in the Czech Republic.

The future of protective gear

To think about the development of reusable protective gear, we suggest following the distinction drawn over the past few months: masks for healthcare workers and masks for everyone else.

In the professional healthcare setting, measures are strict because the exposure and risks are greater. It is likely and acceptable that disposable solutions will dominate the scene here for foreseeable future. Yet reusable solutions are also now on offer. A good and recent example is a prototype of a half mask as developed by the RICAIP center, which combines the stable body of a mask with changeable filters. Or the experimental, grassroots hack, “snorkel mask” with P3R filter, which was sourced and modified cheaply and proposed to supplement early lack of hospital masks. Aside from reduced waste, an added advantage would be that hospitals employing reusable gear would suffer less quickly from supply shortages that might be inevitable in extreme situations because production and trade itself has troubles to react quickly to dramatic rises and drops in global demand.

The second setting is the wide use by general public. These masks do not need to offer medical-grade protection for the wearer, like in healthcare settings. Rather as others have argued, masks can be worn for the purpose of protecting the public from an infected yet asymptomatic person.

In some countries, such as in France, it is a sensitive issue for covering faces in public has number of uneasy connotations. In other countries, typically in China, Korea, or Japan, this is a well-established practice with number of positive connotations. And yet, despite the regular usage we see hardly any push towards replacement of disposable face masks with more environmentally sustainable alternative where the stocks are full. Arguments against the use of reusable masks usually assert that these masks are problematic because the general public are ignorant on their correct and safe use, namely people will fail to wash them regularly. In other words, disposable technologies often implicitly dwell in the conviction that human laziness is innate and hence the “use it and throw it away” approach – and therefore waste – is inevitable. The Czech Republic is a good example of how these patronizing assumptions about people do not necessarily hold.

Future production of protective gear and technologies can build upon these publicly organized reusable regimes that have contributed to solving the problems of this pandemic crisis. For example, the next step in developing this solution should, first, be working towards better functionality – namely breathability on one hand and effectiveness in capture and possibly inhibition of microbial bodies on the other. Second, further development can address how to make the reusability less demanding in terms of energy and resources needed to sterilize the masks. In plain words we should ask whether washing, boiling, ironing can be replaced. Can for example light-activated self-cleaning fabrics change the game?

We do not necessarily believe that industry production of protective gear subsumes grassroots response to mask making. There have been lots of positive social benefits to the public production of masks, including social solidarity, economic supplement for lost wages during this crisis, and of course innovation in design and user friendliness. The public needs better and affordable materials from industry to support their ongoing, mask-making initiatives. The move in this direction would support new regimes that not only reduce the negative externalities of technologies mobilized in market – that is a reduction of unnecessary waste – but also new regimes that take seriously approaches that do not have market logic at their centre.

Conclusion

Our proposal is to free our imagination from the disposable protective gear as the norm. We believe that the conversion of current grass-root creative solutions into innovative designs should be encouraged to retain and develop some staple critical features, namely: reusability, reparability, the possibility to replace the parts, as well as more energy and water-efficient sterilization. Further, we hope for a better appreciation of and coordination with these grass-roots movements. Covid-19 brings about not only a crisis but also an opportunity. Working together we might prevent the loss of lives as well as protect the environment from unnecessary harm.


Daniel Sosna is a researcher at the Department of Ecological Anthropology, Institute of Ethnology, Czech Academy of Sciences where he focuses on shifting waste regimes. He co-edited the book ‘Archaeologies of waste: encounters with the unwanted‘ (Oxbow Books, 2017). His most recent research project aims at understanding the transition from landfilling to incineration of waste in Europe.

Paul G. Keil is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Ecological Anthropology, Institute of Ethnology, Czech Academy of Sciences. Keil received his PhD in anthropology, studying human-elephant relations in northeast India, and i​​s currently conducting his postdoctoral research on hunting and feral pigs in Australia.

Luděk Brož is a researcher at the Institute of Ethnology, Czech Academy of Sciences where he heads the Department of Ecological Anthropology. As a co-editor of ‘Suicide and Agency: Anthropological perspectives on self-destruction, personhood and power (Ashgate, 2015) Ludek has been active in the ongoing establishment of anthropology of suicide as an integral part of the emerging field of critical suicide studies. In his current work Ludek focuses on human animal relations as mediated by veterinary expertise.