• Meher Mehta

Cloth Masks vs Plastic Masks: The Question of Sustainability

Updated: Mar 2

Right now, we are living in a pandemic. Our daily lives have changed drastically as we take measures to stay safe by staying 6 feet apart - to wearing facial coverings, or masks, as protection. Masks can offer protection against germs and help people stay safe during the pandemic.

Discarded masks and plastic gloves litter the Mediterranean seabed near Antibes, France - Copyright Laurent Lombard / Opération Mer Propre

Plastic Masks

When coming to masks, you have two options: buying disposable masks or making them at home to reuse them. Disposable face masks are cheap and easy to buy- just order them on and watch them be delivered right to your home. So what’s the problem? Disposable masks are most detrimental to the environment, especially for marine life. Many of the ‘coronavirus waste’ including disposable masks and latex gloves land in the ocean where they have negative impacts on the environment. Marine animals, curious, eat plastic masks and gloves and die.

Reaching into your pocket and taking out your wallet can accidentally dislodge the mask. On the floor, the mask can find its way to the ocean. Masks are so light that even if thrown into the garbage, the wind can blow them away. So why don't we recycle it? It’s not that simple. Masks, gloves, and PPE cannot be put into the recycling bin as it is considered medical waste. Recycling them will put frontline workers at risk as collecting, sorting, and handling the materials will be potentially exposed.

Cloth Masks

Unlike disposable masks which can only be used once, cloth masks can be reused many times. They can be bought from local stores or handmade at home using a sewing machine. Since they are made of cloth, they can be washed and used again, eliminating the need to discard them and risk the lives of many marine animals. Making cloth masks also help health care workers themselves, by making sure that the supply for health care workers is not diminished. Surgical masks and N-95 masks are still needed by front-line workers, and when the public buys them, they threaten the lives of those front-line workers who need it the most. Thus, making your own mask not only protects you but also helps front-line workers.

Making them

Making cloth masks is a fairly easy feat. There are many online tutorials that will guide you in the process of making them. As for materials needed, a sewing machine, cotton clothing, and elastics will suffice. Cloth masks can even be made without a sewing machine, however, a sewing machine is recommended. If you don’t have access to elastic strands, strings can be made out of cotton which you can tie around your head to keep the mask on. I used video tutorials by Erica Arndt ( to make a cloth mask using strings where I distributed to elderly people around my neighborhood.