The history of mask-wearing
According to this WellBeing article, one of the first uses of face coverings for safety was by Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, who used animal-bladder skin to protect himself while crushing toxic minerals. Servants of the Chinese emperor in the 13th century wore silk masks while handling food to avoid contaminating it, while Leonardo da Vinci used water-soaked cloths to prevent himself from inhaling toxic chemicals while painting.
Fast forward many years, and many occupations such as miners and surgeons still wear masks to prevent themselves from harm or promote hygiene. In some Asian countries such as Japan and China, wearing a mask is part of their culture – as a proactive way to stop the spread of germs when they are sick, or to protect themselves from air pollution.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, masks have made their way into Western society, initially due to necessity but now as part of popular culture. Fashion labels have designed all sorts of masks ranging from utilitarian to the fantastical, and masks also became a political statement for causes such as the Black Lives Matter movement or to encourage people to vote.
The future of masks
As we learn to adapt to a new ‘COVID-normal’, will masks remain part of our future? While this is uncertain, what is clear is that the impact of these two years of widespread mask-wearing will have an outsized, lasting impact on our planet.
A report from OceansAsia found that “[f]rom a global production projection of 52 billion masks for 2020, we estimate that 1.56 billion masks will enter our oceans in 2020, amounting to between 4,680 and 6,240 metric tonnes of plastic pollution. These masks will take as long as 450 years to break down and all the while serve as a source of micro plastic and negatively impact marine wildlife and ecosystems.”
2022 may continue to feature masks as a part of our wardrobe. While single-use surgical masks are essential in some settings, statistics such as those underscore the need for us to collectively make efforts to reduce the use of single-use masks where possible, and take other steps to reduce our impact on our planet.
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