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The environmental impact of abandoned face masks

This year, face masks have become as essential to carry around with you as your keys and purse. Research suggests that masks help to dramatically reduce the spread of Coronavirus, however 53 million masks are ending up in landfill every day in the UK, with others abandoned elsewhere. Contaminated and not reusable, masks are rivalling the dreaded plastic carrier bag as yet another waste product making its irreversible, infectious and hazardous mark on the environment.

Following the outbreak of Coronavirus in Wuhan, China, late last year, wide-spread disruption and fear, and a new way of life have persisted throughout 2020. At the outset, most nations shut boarders, introduced quarantining, restricted mobility and daily activities in a bid to curb the increasing infection rate.

Alongside the ‘lockdown’ rules, governments and international organisations have recommended frequent handwashing, social-distancing and made personal protective equipment (PPE) mandatory for both medical professionals and, later, the general public.

The UK government, along with others in Europe and internationally, had initially not made face-mask-wearing compulsory when going out in public places. It was thought that masks were ineffective at preventing the spread of the virus and no one wanted to deprive medical professionals of essential protective gear.

But as understanding of the virus improved, the World Health Organisation (WHO) necessitated mask-wearing in public. And now, populations are required to wear a mask in supermarkets, on public transport, in pubs or restaurants, at the hairdressers and in other public places.

In a dramatic departure from the past, wearing a face mask outside the home became the new norm.

The WHO explained the virus can be transmitted through the air in liquid particles when a person coughs, sneezes, sings, breathes heavily or talks to people close-by. Therefore, a mask can act as a barrier from inhaling one another’s respiratory droplets and smaller, aerosol particles which may contain the virus.

The kinds of face masks available for the public to wear are both surgical and non-surgical. Many people and small businesses have urgently taken to hand-making face masks out of cotton and other textiles to sell as supplies of surgical masks in the UK and Europe have been desperately short.

Three layers of material are needed for masks to be effective. That’s fine for the textile-produced face masks, wherein the three fabric layers can be washed and reused. But for disposable masks, making up 90% of those worn by the public, three layers of plastic are used, including polypropylene, as well as a strip of metal to grip around the nose.

Domestic mask production serves as a response to the fact that the UK, Europe and the US have seen their supplies of swathes of medical goods from China be disrupted and halted by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The production of goods in general has been outsourced to China due to the existence of cheaper labour; with products then imported back to Europe and the US to be sold. But having such far-reaching supply chains has been devastating for sourcing masks, medical equipment and communications technologies during the pandemic.

Because small-businesses and individuals are now making masks for local distribution, the number of air-miles, which would usually be racked up by the forces of globalisation and product re-distribution around the world, are dramatically reduced and by consequence so are carbon emissions.

Whilst bringing mask production back into the domestic sphere clearly creates some benefit, managing the waste and disposal of such a vast number of masks poses a new environmental crisis.

The government’s waste and resources sector has already had to face the nightmare of orchestrating the disposal of far more medical waste than usual, especially when hazardous waste facilities are at maximum capacity and reduced workforces are in operation.

But disposing of medical waste, including masks, is drastically different to how the general public are dealing with their own face masks.

There is only 10% of the UK population wearing reusable face masks, meaning 53 million masks end up in landfill every day. In addition, there is an untraceable number abandoned elsewhere, polluting green space, streams, rivers and oceans like never before.

Some members of the public are treating used facemasks like cigarette buts, often throwing them into gutters, empty shopping trolleys, and hedges, or even onto the pavement, instead of disposing of them properly according to government guidelines.

Primarily, there are health concerns over the disposal of contaminated face masks. A recent study showed that coronaviruses can remain on surfaces for up to nine days; and the UK government recommends waiting at least 72 hours before discarding your mask.

The potential biohazards connected with every discarded mask, similar to those associated with disposing needles and syringes, risk re-spreading the very virus they are designed to protect against.

And, it has been calculated that over one year, the amount of non-recyclable plastic mask waste generated in the UK will be equivalent to five-and-a-half Eiffel Towers. This is seriously problematic because, notwithstanding the immediate health danger they pose, non-reusable masks are made out of plastics like polypropylene which takes around 450 years to biodegrade.

As for the face masks which end up in the ocean, they simply add to the eight million tonne mass of plastic entering the sea every year. The various plastics break down extremely slowly into micro-plastics which then filter into marine food chains with disastrous consequences.

Micro-marine-plastics hold onto toxins and contaminants; plants and animals then absorb or ingest these substances, poisoning and killing them.

It seems that face masks, essential as they are for preventing the spread of Coronavirus, are just adding to already great concerns over plastic pollution and the resulting wildlife and human health impacts.

But face masks needn’t be added to this list of concerns; purchasing disposable plastic face masks is highly unnecessary given the booming market of reusable ones, some of which use wonderful, culturally expressive designs.

Whether buying or making a textile face mask, a few things are certain: moving away from disposable masks will save you money and can generate money for charity.

It also encourages a cultural shift in favour of recycling and reusing, essential for decreasing the demand for disposable plastic face masks, and for aligning with broader attitude changes towards waste management and resisting climate change.


Photo Credit – Leo2014 (Pixabay)

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