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Cloth Masks vs Plastic Masks: The Question of Sustainability

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

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.


Cloth masks can be made in large quantities at home due to a smaller number of supplies needed. Since we are in a national public health emergency, it is important that people stay safe. Thus, if a neighbor needs masks or if someone doesn’t have the materials to make them, you should help and assist them. Donations of cloth masks can be made to hospitals, homeless shelters, or even your own neighborhood.

Places you can donate to:

Nextdoor: Nextdoor is an app that connects neighborhoods together. You can use that platform to ask if anyone is in need of masks or if you, yourself, need masks.

Alameda Health System Foundation: They are accepting N95, hand sanitizers, goggles, surgical masks, gowns, face shields, gloves, and disinfectant wipes. Donations are accepted Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Fairmont Hospital Central Supply Service, 15400 Foothill Blvd., San Leandro.

John Muir Health: This east bay health care system is accepting face shields, masks (N95, surgical, or isolation), hand sanitizer, eye shields, gowns, and goggles. To drop off a donation in person, go to John Muir Health, Walnut Creek Medical Center at 175 La Casa Via, Walnut Creek. Supplies donated at this location will be used for Concord and Walnut Creek medical centers and outpatient facilities.

Kaiser Permanente: They are accepting unused face shields, goggles (non-vented), masks (N95 respirator, surgical and isolation), hand sanitizer, isolation or surgical gowns, and Clorox or Sani-Cloth wipes. Donations can be mailed to Kaiser Permanente, Attention: Hospital Command Center, 2130 O’Farrell St., San Francisco Calif. 94115.

Sutter Health is collecting masks both N95 and surgical and does accept homemade masks. To make a donation, contact local Sutter affiliates or call 844-987-6099. A Sutter representative will provide specific guidance on how to make a delivery.

Most hospitals accept homemade masks which they will wear as extra protection. You can reach out to your local health care provider center for more information.


Huet, Natalie. “Fines for Littering Rise in France as Masks and Gloves Found on Seabed.” Euronews, 11 June 2020,

Huntsman, Anna. “Researchers Offer Evidence That Cloth Masks Can Prevent Spread of COVID-19.” WOSU Radio,

Mavrokefalidis, Dimitris. “'Don't Recycle Coronavirus Masks and Gloves'.” Energy Live News, 1 May 2020,

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