Our Solution to Disposable Mask Pollution

Credit: Geoffrey Abraham


Despite the push for widespread vaccine access in late 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic rages on across the globe. An unexpected “side-effect” has emerged: single-use plastic waste in the form of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, etc. has been piling up at alarmingly rapid rates. One of the easiest ways to combat this wasteful trend is by encouraging the use of reusable cloth masks. However, there are many people in the world that either do not have access to reusable masks or cannot afford them. Therefore their options become the “cheap” alternative of single-use plastic masks or not wearing one at all.


In July of this year, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimated that 75% of pandemic-related plastic waste will end up in landfills and our oceans. Beyond that, many items aren’t being disposed of properly and end up littering our streets and sidewalks. “The UN Environment Program (UNEP) has warned that, if the large increase in medical waste (much of it made from environmentally harmful single-use plastics) is not managed soundly, uncontrolled dumping could result.”  (UN News, July 2020)

Discarded face masks on the side of the road with trash in Queens, New York.
Source: Lindsey Nicholson / Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“On a beach about 100 metres long, we found about 70,” said Gary Stokes of OceansAsia. One week later, another 30 masks had washed up. “And that’s on an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere.” (The Guardian, June 2020)

“Once in the ocean, masks collect algae, attracting small fish that in turn attract larger fish, he said. A dolphin or whale could mistake a mask for food, and the mask could get caught in the animal’s digestive tract, which could result in death.” (New York Times, July 2020)

Discarded face masks and gloves wash up on shore. (Getty Images)

Beyond the more visible issues of mask pollution, when the plastic in these masks is exposed to sunlight it can start to break down in a process known as photodegradation. Instead of decomposing and disappearing, it turns into smaller and smaller pieces, a.k.a. microplastics. These microplastics then remain in our waterways + oceans for years to come and are ingested by marine life, eventually leading to human consumption down the line. “This is especially dangerous as degraded plastics can absorb and hold on to high concentrations of toxic metals, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, as well as other chemical pollutants. Once microplastics are floating in the sea, they are currently impossible to collect.”(Slate, October 2020)

Microplastics compared to a U.S. penny.
Source: National Geographic

The plastic waste issue hits especially close to home for us at WORK+SHELTER. In Delhi, the home of our production center and our team in India, the vast majority of waste is incinerated, including many plastics. This contributes to Delhi having some of the worst air pollution in the world, and is one of the reasons we avoid single-use plastics within our production center, and instead use cellophane-based packaging. 

Smog fills the air around Delhi’s India Gate on October 28th, 2020.
Source: Sunil Kataria/TOI, Delhi, BCCL


One of the main reasons plastic masks are ending up on the streets and in landfills in the first place is because many people either do not have access to reusable masks or cannot afford them. That’s where we come in. Together with the The Soondra Foundation and Chicago Fair Trade, WORK+SHELTER is committed to donating over 10,000 reusable cloth masks to those in need. 

Recipients of donated W+S masks in Delhi, India.

Each mask is made from organic cotton fabric scraps at our ethical production center in Delhi, allowing us to train and employ more impoverished and at-risk women. By using fabric scraps to make the masks we are not only keeping plastic out of landfills and our oceans but are also reducing textile waste, one of the largest sources of pollution behind plastics. After the masks are produced, the Soondra Foundation and Chicago Fair Trade will be distributing the masks throughout Chicago + India.

One of our W+S queens, Hema Tanwar, modeling the organic cotton face masks.

To achieve this goal we are asking for your help to raise $20,000. This will allow us to pay the women making the masks a fair wage, as well as supply any additional materials needed and cover distribution costs. Please consider donating if you can, and if you can’t we would really appreciate you sharing the campaign with friends, family, and/or on social media. We are offering some fun rewards when you donate, including your very own WORK+SHELTER made organic cotton face mask. Read our latest blog post, Masks Without Borders, to learn more about the campaign and visit our Fundly page to donate today!