Disposable Masks ‘Causing Enormous Plastic Waste’
Face masks are necessary to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, but the continued use of disposable masks is causing ‘enormous’ plastic waste in the UK.
The government is being urged to encourage the public to swap to reusable face masks, which can be washed and worn repeatedly to avoid using a new one for every outing.
Reusable face masks are widely available, but many people still opt for disposable ones that contain plastics like polypropylene, which pollutes water, and which can harm wildlife if not disposed of correctly.
Innocent creatures may mistake the masks for food and attempt to eat them, or get tangled in the thin straps of the coverings.
Face masks are mandatory on public transport, in shops and in some other enclosed spaces in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the official guidance for England is to wear a reusable, washable mask where possible.
If people do opt for disposable coverings, guidance encourages wearers to dispose of them in ‘black bag’ waste bins or in public litter bins outdoors. People should ‘not put them in a recycling bin as they cannot be recycled through conventional recycling facilities’ and ‘take them home… if there is no litter bin.’
Unfortunately, thousands of people are choosing to ignore the guidance and, as a result, environmental groups say hundreds of thousands of single-use masks are being abandoned outdoors, where they are left to clog drains and litter pavements and countrysides, BBC News reports.
Laura Foster, head of clean seas at the Marine Conservation Society, commented:
Just look at rivers such as the Thames and you’ll see them floating by.
When they’re whole, wildlife’s going to get tangled in it or the plastic’s going to be ingested. They aren’t going to biodegrade either, although they will break up, introducing more microplastics into the sea and the food chain.
Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, noted the increase in mask use came at a time when the nation was already ‘drowning in plastic’, and called for ‘stronger government guidance’ when it comes to protecting the environment.
A government spokesperson said officials are ‘actively looking at how PPE can be reused in safe ways, including decontamination.’
We have published guidance on how to wear and make a cloth face covering and how to safely dispose of PPE.
Over the next couple of months, we are considering how we can inform the UK’s longer-term PPE use strategy into the future, including taking into account environmental concerns.
The Marine Conservation Society is set to launch its week-long Great British Beach Clean on September 18, and the organisation is asking volunteers to record how many masks they pick up in an effort to highlight the extent of the issue.
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