Disposable masks are necessary during COVID-19. But we’re burning through them at an astounding rate. Every minute we throw away 3 million masks, which adds up to 129 billion per month. To make matters worse, most of these masks are made of plastic fibers, which are more prone to break down into microplastics than plastic bags or water bottles.
But what if we could just bury a mask when we’re done wearing it and know it wouldn’t wreck the planet?
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That’s the plan for a new initiative by designer Marianne de Groot of the Dutch design firm Pons Ontwerp. Called Marie Bee Bloom, it’s a biodegradable mask that’s made from layers of rice paper (or paper created with a mixture of rice, water, and sometimes other natural starches). Not only can you bury it in the ground once you’re done wearing it, but the mask will also grow flowers: Inside the rice paper there are flower seeds that can sprout under the right conditions.
The rest of the mask is made to be environmentally friendly, too. The ear loops are made from simple spun wool. A cord fastener allows you to adjust the loops to fit, but instead of being made out of plastic, it’s just a tiny flower punched out of an egg carton. As for how the loops attach to the mask, they run through a small tube built into each side fashioned by rolling the mask over itself and gluing it with potato starch.
The entire product looks more like a craft project than a surgical mask that’s come off of a mass assembly line, but that’s largely the point. It’s a product designed for its end of life.
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Increasingly, we’re seeing products that are designed in this manner, placing as much emphasis on their disposal as their core use. Examples include Adidas’s Loop shoes, which are designed to be ground up and reformed into new shoes when the wearer is done with them, and Levi’s Wellthread line, which is built from materials that can be reclaimed and reused. Both are evidence that companies are beginning to face their own impact head-on. Recyclability and compostability aren’t just bonuses to a product, they’re becoming core features of a product.
However, with Marie Bee Bloom, one question remains: Does the mask actually work well enough to help keep you reasonably safe? While rice paper is commonly used in beauty products, we cannot find any cases where it has been tested as personal protective equipment. We’ve reached out to Pons Ontwerp to see if it is running internal testing, but over the past year, it’s been incredibly rare to see any mask manufacturers attempt to validate their product.
Marie Bee Bloom masks run about $3.50 apiece, meaning they’re considerably more expensive than surgical masks, and even more expensive than what an N95 would cost you pre-pandemic. If you do make the purchase, it’s worth doing a candle test at minimum, and taking the current advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to double mask.
So no, the Marie Bee Bloom mask isn’t the mask you should buy to maximize your personal safety. But as a design object that demonstrates a more sustainable approach to PPE, it’s provocative and challenging. With our environment at the brink of permanent collapse, every industry on the planet needs to reconsider how it makes products. Even after COVID-19 is over, our lives will depend on it.