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Saturday, November 21, 2020

The blight of the disposable masks

Every morning I walk to the shop to get my paper, and every morning I find myself dodging dog shit and the plague of disposable masks that has hit every community in the UK. It is a blight that cannot be allowed to continue.

In this regard I agree with Joanna Whitehead in the Independent, who references a study published in Environmental Science and Technology journal, which estimated 194 billion disposable masks and gloves are being used globally every month as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

She says that for medical staff on the frontline, single-use makes sense as they need to ensure the highest levels of hygiene in a working environment. But argues we need to teach the rest of the population that most single-use masks are made from plastics like polypropylene, polyethylene and vinyl – material that takes 450 years to degrade. During this time, she says, face masks break down into microplastics that are then ingested by marine life:

Marine life, such as sea turtles – who often die after eating plastic bags they mistake for jellyfish, their main food source – also risk a slow and unpleasant death with a new and ubiquitous kind of plastic on the menu.

Campaigners in France warned in May that if single use masks continue being used at the current rate, there could soon be more masks in the Mediterranean than jellyfish.

And, it’s not just marine life. In September, the RSPCA called on the public to “snip the straps” of disposable face masks after receiving an increasing number of reports of animals tangled in them.

“Now that face masks are the norm, and may be for some time to come, this message is more important than ever as thousands of these masks are being thrown away every day,” the charity’s chief executive Chris Sherwood said.

“Our RSPCA officers have had to rescue animals from getting tangled in face masks and we expect that this may go up as time goes on, so the best thing to do is to simply cut the elastic ear straps in half before throwing it away.”

Even when disposed of correctly, face masks are classified as medical waste, which means they cannot be recycled and end up either in landfill, or being incinerated, which produces toxic fumes.

As PPE litter becomes an all-too-common sight on UK streets, it’s vital that any efforts to reverse this trend focus on the wider picture, as well as individual behaviour. Getting into the habit of remembering a mask when leaving the house is one that people sometimes forget, prompting them to buy single-use masks whilst out and about.

There are good resusable masks on the market, factoring in fabric, facial hair and fashion. Why not buy them as Christmas presents for your family and friends?
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