But in a very rural area of southern India, Paper Seed Co., an eco-friendly NGO, has created something the environment can benefit from: a single-use face mask that, when disposed of into the soil, blooms into plants.
The paper seed mask, partially made of cotton, is a brainchild of Nitin Vas, an energetic environmental activist, social entrepreneur and founder of Paper Seed Co., a non-profit business model that generates income for local villagers -- mostly women and youth.
"The masks are made from recycled cotton rags and the inner linings are made out of cotton cloth. They are as thick as N95 and they protect from the infection," Vas told ABC News by phone from the outskirts of Mangalore, a town 1,400 miles south of India's capital city of New Delhi.
Hand-produced in a small village community at an open air workshop, the masks will biodegrade when placed in a garden or in a landfill.
"They are completely degradable -- even the straps are made of cotton," said Vas. "But we don't want to encourage people to throw the masks away. In a bid to cut down on plastic pollution and give back to nature, the embedded seeds in our masks grow into plants once they hit the soil."
"We encourage more planting," Vas continued. "However, the tree seeds were too big for our mask and the germination rate of flowers was very low, so we tried avoiding those and relied on tomato, basil, chili pepper, traditional tulsi and other vegetable seeds."
When planted into soil and watered, the seeds start to germinate in about four to five days and will ultimately grow into a small patch of vegetable plants.
To date, Paper Seed has produced 10.000 masks, which cost about 34 cents each, and the company has had more than 1 million mask orders. But, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the unit producing the masks had to scale down from 32 people to just seven and, under lockdown, India's working hours have been shortened so the output is currently very limited.
"A product is truly eco-friendly only when it doesn't involve bigger industrial setups. These are not machine-made and hence, we can't roll out hundreds of products as they do in factories," Vas explained. "The process to create pulp and make sheets itself takes up around eight hours after which it takes another 12 hours to dry. Then each mask is cut out by hand using stencils and stitched. So, I would say, it's fairly priced."
"Masks are essential for humans, but they are also creating problems for other species. We see them lying on the streets and ending up in landfills but forget that it also ends up in rivers and oceans creating irreparable damage to the environment and aquatic life," Vas said. "The mankind seems to be callous in our attitude towards the animals and the environment. The number of discarded masks in our cleanup drives was just astonishing."
As masks became a legal requirement in most public spaces around the world, litter grew into a very real problem. In fact, a recent study revealed that, globally, 129 billion face masks are used every month which translates into 3 million face masks used per minute.
Another study also reported that 3.4 billion face masks are discarded daily around the world.
The majority of surgical masks are produced from long-lasting plastic materials and, if discarded, they can last in the environment for decades as they fragment into smaller and smaller microplastics and nanoplastics.
In fact, a single face mask can release as many as 173,000 microfibers per day into the seas, according to a study published in Environmental Advances.
There are also real world implications for wildlife in 2021 -- a serotine bat trapped by two masks in The Netherlands, a monkey in Malaysia attempting to eat a mask and a penguin in Brazil with a mask in its stomach are just some of the victims that have made headlines.
Even though millions of people around the world have been told to use face masks, there was no real guidance on how to dispose of them or recycle them safely and, as many countries begin relaxing and lifting the lockdown restrictions, without improved disposal practices, an environmental disaster could be looming.