THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF DISPOSABLE FACE MASKS

In a pre-pandemic world, the sight of the everyday public wearing face masks would have been totally bizarre and unsettling, but today it’s become the norm. Government restrictions extending to COVID-19 laws have ensured that we wear one in most public places in order to protect ourselves and others around us. It’s a sign of safety and one that we willingly oblige to, in the hope of a post-pandemic world drawing closer. Hands, face, space - you heard the man.

Unfortunately, much like items and accessories we use on the daily, there is the threat of these face masks becoming obligatory ‘throw-away’ objects like it were a used cotton pad or toothbrush. Naturally, this has become a conservationist dilemma. It’s difficult to warrant the danger of turning around so many disposable masks when their main function is to collect germs and prevent spreads of infections. Once you’ve worn a mask over your mouth and nose, it is then ‘dirty’ and not fit for use. In the bin it goes, we get it.

 

But if we all continue to engage in this single-use, throwaway etiquette with no definitive end of coronavirus insight, we face the risk of harming the planet to no end. University College London ran a study which estimated if every person in the UK alone wore one disposable mask a day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste - a figure that on top of already unmanageable levels of plastic waste, is something we cannot afford to have piled up.

The classic, surgical-looking, disposable face masks are mainly made of non-woven fabric such as polypropylene. Similarly, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethene or polyester are all other commonly-used materials contained in surgical masks. While they protect us successfully from bacteria, they are heavily plastic-based, liquid-resistant products that have a long afterlife. Unfortunately, this means their destiny is often landfill or the ocean.

Abroad, ocean cleaning organisations have coined the new phrase ‘covid waste’, referring to the noticeable rise in discarded face masks, gloves and sanitizer bottles found washed up or polluting the seas that surround us. Closer to home, environmental activist group Greenpeace say they have concerns about the increased littering of disposable masks found in streets or public parks. 

“They find their way into our waterways, clogging up our rivers and seas and degrading into harmful microplastics,” says Louise Edge, senior campaigner at Greenpeace to news outlet Wales Online. 

Whilst this environmental concern does not yet outweigh the threat of the virus or wider ecological worries, it is one that we can tackle now and very easily. The lifespan of a disposable single-use plastic mask is 450 years. By using one most days, it’s not exactly rocket science to see how this danger has the potential to stack up. Seeing as most of our commitment to aid the environment has come after large amounts of irreversible damage, it’s refreshing to encourage a preventative approach to lowering single-use plastic before it’s too late

July 17, 2022 — James Rose