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Why we shouldn’t use single-use face masks (PPE)

By August 14, 2020Blog, Learn

Every Month, 129 Billion Face Masks are dumped into our Environment

According to French clean-up charity Opération Mer Propre “There risks being more masks than jellyfish,”

But as the global health emergency has taken priority, the battle to reduce plastic waste has been sidelined by both governments and the public. And several governments including the UK and Portugal have delayed bans on single-use plastics amid concerns around the transmission of Covid-19.

Now I think plastic’s great! There’s nothing wrong with plastic, in fact I can’t imagine life without it. It’s humans that are the problem…

Take the case of single-use plastic bags:

Amazingly when supermarkets started to charge for disposable plastic bags and encouraged people to buy “bags for life” instead, the amount of plastic used went UP

How could that happen? Well it happened because lots of us treated bags for life as disposable and only ever used them once, and to be better for the environment they need to be used more than 4 times, it sounds mad but it’s true!

Government statistics for 2018 show the number of single-use plastic carrier bags used in the UK was 1.11 billion, on top of that sales of bags for life were 1.5 billion so it’s a big problem.

But the disposable face mask problem is much, much worse.

They’re called cloth or fabric but most aren’t cloth at all, nearly all of them are woven plastic, usually polypropylene but polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, and polyester are also commonly used.

If just half the UK population wore a single-use surgical mask every day that would be over 12 billion plastic masks to dispose of (or dump if you like).

They’re thrown in the streets, seas, and rivers, or flushed down the toilet to block pumps and help create ‘fatbergs’. Even if they go in the household waste they’ll just end up in landfill for the next 30 years.

Of course if they’re doing their job and protecting people from Covid-19 by capturing the potentially fatal virus you’d think they’d be treated as medical waste which must be incinerated with all the pollution problems that causes.

But the Government says “Throw them in the bin”

DEFRA: The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs tells us:

“Never put masks, gloves or other personal protective equipment (PPE) in the recycling. They cannot be recycled. Throw them in the bin instead.

If you have #coronavirus symptoms or live with someone who does, you also need to take extra precautions before throwing away PPE.”

According to the Financial Times the UK’s health and social care department said it was “unable to say how the 2bn pieces of protective equipment it procured would be disposed of although they are looking at the best way to do it”.

You could say we’re lucky so many people break the mask rules in the UK, and also that so many people ignore their own safety by reusing single-use masks.

Just a few decades ago, almost all PPE was reusable

That all changed in the 1980s when the manufacturers realised how much more money they could make from disposable products “The more stuff you throw away, the more you have to buy” Now most protective equipment is disposable.

The answer to the problem lies in the “The three R’s”

Not the ones you learn at School, the three “Eco” R’s are Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce and Reuse goes hand in hand. If you reuse your mask then you reduce the amount of plastic used.

Despite the DEFRA advice not to recycle I think if you have a mask made out of recyclable material why wouldn’t you recycle it?

So long as you sanitize it before you put it in the recycling what’s the problem? There’s lots of advice on the internet including storing masks in a paper bag for a week before disposal or soaking them in a 5% bleach solution. I think DEFRA are taking the easy option here not necessarily the right one, maybe your local council has a more enlightened view?

Here are some more thoughts for you

Don’t use surgeon’s masks at all ( the Blue ones) they’re bad for you and bad for the environment

If you want to wear a cloth mask choose a washable one made from (organic) cotton. Some companies also make them from recycled plastic bottles or even coffee yarn. Reusable masks can be washed up to 25 times, but remember they need to be washed after each use so you’ll need one a month.

You need to buy more than one mask so you don’t have to run the washing machine every night to sanitize a single mask (as if you would do that), wash them in batches.

If you can’t wear a mask for any reason, don’t go maskless and put yourself and others at risk. Choose Clearshield.

Clearshield is made of plastic but that’s not a bad thing

  • It protects people who can’t wear cloth masks (Asthmatics or Autistic teenagers for example)
  • It lasts almost indefinitely (unless you sit on it)
  • It can be wiped clean with soap and water or sanitiser so it doesn’t need machine washing
  • It’s made from PP and PET so it can be recycled in the household waste the same as drinks bottles (but make sure to sanitise it first)
  • You can wear it under a cloth mask for extra protection AND it extends the life of the cloth mask
  • It prevents the Acne caused by cloth masks which is so common now that it has its own name “Mascne”

Masks are here to stay and every survey carried out so far finds they reduce the amount of Coronavirus in the environment.

Now the immediate crisis is over it’s time we took a more educated and sustainable long term view when choosing the mask we want to wear.

David Ellis


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