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Plastic-free face masks

Reusable masks are effective and could save 124,000 tonnes of plastic waste, experts say
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Plastic-free masks

As England joins Scotland, France, Germany and Spain in making face coverings compulsory in shops, the government, World Health Organisation, EU European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and other experts say that reusable masks are effective when used correctly.

Throwaway plastic masks are not inherently safer for members of the public than reusable ones, and they present an enormous risk to the environment and wildlife. 

129bn masks per month

Globally we are already using 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves every month, according to some estimates.

A UCL study found that if every person in the UK used a single-use plastic face mask every day for a year, it could create an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging (124,000 tonnes in total).

‘Human health is dependent on the health of the environment, and Covid-19 must not become a reason to further degrade that health. Single-use disposable masks and plastic gloves must be avoided for general public use. Cloth face masks are effective and must be made more widely available and plastic gloves are completely unnecessary for general public use.’

Northern European Regional Hub Coordinator of the Planetary Health Alliance, Royal Holloway University of London

Advantages of cotton masks

The government, World Health Organisation (WHO), EU European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and other experts say reusable masks are effective when combined with social distancing and thorough hand washing.

UK government advice from the Cabinet Office states that face coverings should ‘be made of a material that you find to be comfortable and breathable, such as cotton’ and The World Health Organisation (WHO) has provided specific advice on how to wear a non-medical fabric mask safely.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) says ‘face covers made of textiles have the advantage that they can be produced easily; they are washable and reusable.’

‘For general public use, reusable fabric masks are effective and far preferable to single-use plastic masks. They reduce the environmental and health risks associated with the disposal of 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste that will be produced if everyone in the UK starts wearing single-use plastic masks. Reusable masks also significantly reduce the climate change impact of this new government rule.’

Project Lead at the Plastics Waste Innovation Hub, University College London

Face mask pollution

Once single-use plastic face masks become marine debris polluting our oceans, they can float in water like plastic bags do, and could be mistaken as food by turtles, dolphins and porpoises.

If ingested by wildlife in the sea or in rivers, the plastic from masks could lead to choking or blocking of their digestive tracts and could ultimately kill them.

There have been reports of disposable plastic masks and gloves being found by divers in the south of France and in the beak of a kite in Hong Kong.

In Chelmsford, Essex, a young seagull was found by the RSPCA with sore and swollen legs wrapped in a disposable plastic mask last weekend (photograph available, please credit RSPCA). 

‘Throwaway masks are the latest plastic menace to be found strewn across parks and pavements. They find their way into our waterways, clogging up our rivers and seas and degrading into harmful microplastics. But disposable masks are not inherently safer for general public use than reusable ones, and experts say reusable masks can protect us during the pandemic, if worn and washed properly.

‘Plastic masks float like jellyfish in water so turtles can mistake them for food and other wildlife like seabirds can become tangled in the plastic. We know better than to add to the plastic pollution problem. Blue Planet opened our eyes to the hazards of plastic in the oceans, and we mustn’t look away now.’

Senior campaigner at Greenpeace

Microplastics from single-use masks

Discarded single-use plastic masks degrade into tiny microplastics which are too small to ever be removed from the ocean or rivers, and are harmful to wildlife.

Studies have shown that microplastics can even find their way into our seafood, beer and vegetables.

This week a new study from Royal Holloway reported that an estimated 94,000 microplastics flow down the River Thames every second.

The same study found that an examination of 135 crabs along the river resulted in 874 pieces of plastic being removed from their bodies.

Also this week, the University of Exeter provided new evidence of shark species in UK waters ingesting microplastics.

Reusable face masks

Most single-use plastic masks available for members of the public to buy are made from several different types of plastic meaning they cannot be recycled.

Reusable masks made from fabric are less wasteful and harmful to the environment, and are just as effective for use in shops and on public transport, experts say.

Research suggests that denser fabrics with tighter weaves are best for face coverings, and that two or more layers of fabric can provide greater protection than a single layer. 

A Cennox report found that half (54%) of all shoppers already wear a mask or gloves while out shopping. But the report also discovered that 13% of consumers had chosen to avoid supermarkets all together since lockdown began.

The introduction of mandatory face coverings is hoped by the retail industry to increase shoppers’ confidence and also add extra protection for staff. 

A UCL Life Cycle Analysis of disposable and reusable masks shows that reusable masks not only create less plastic waste (saving 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste or 124,000 tonnes of plastic waste including the wrapping) but they also have a lower environmental impact in terms of energy use and CO2 emissions, depending on how the reusable masks are washed and at what temperature.

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