Metro.co.uk‘s Just1Change campaign is highlighting the small changes we can all make to help save the planet.
We’ve looked at the most eco-friendly food delivery services, debunked your top recycling myths, and now we’re shining the spotlight on Covid-19 waste.
What was once an in-demand scarcity now litters our streets – the worldwide use of disposable face masks is an environmental nightmare in the making.
The surge of single-use products was unavoidable in the fight against the spread of Covid-19, but now used blue face masks littering the streets is an all-too-familiar sight.
As the coronavirus outbreak continues, the face mask pollution problem is only going to get worse.
But just how bad are the masks for the planet, and can they be recycled?
Here is all you need to know.
How bad are face masks for the environment?
Single-use face masks are indeed incredibly damaging to the environment.
Nina Schrank, Senior Plastics Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, explained to Metro.co.uk: ‘Just like other plastic items designed to be used once or twice and thrown away, disposable masks end up in landfills, being burned in incinerators and polluting our natural world.’
Disposable face masks are made from a type of plastic called polypropylene fabric.
According to climate action group Waste Free Oceans, polypropylene fabric can take 450 years to decompose in nature.
They also highlight that fish and other sea life could mistake the masks for food – such as jellyfish – and accidentally ingest them, leading to health complications and even death.
A team of researchers from the University of Southern Denmark found that around the world a staggering three million masks are thrown away every minute.
According to University College London’s Plastics Innovation Hub, if just half of the UK’s population used one disposable mask per day for a year, then that adds up to 12 billion masks a year.
This is equal to more than 30,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste – about three times the weight of the Eiffel Tower.
Can you recycle face masks?
Disposable face masks are not widely recycled by local councils.
Stephen Clarke, Head of Communications at TerraCycle Europe explained to Metro.co.uk that this is because: ‘Separating the materials that make up a facemask is a complex and expensive process and one that councils cannot afford.’
However, there is some good news – you can recycle your face masks at special collection bins located in 150 Wilko stores nationwide.
Wilko estimates that a huge 400,000 masks could be recycled via the scheme. This equates to a whopping 966kg of single-use plastic.
Find your nearest Wilko face mask recycling bin on the Wilko website.
Once full, collection bins are taken away by ReWorked, where – after a 72-hour quarantine period – masks are washed and shredded down into raw materials, which can be manufactured into new products.
Alternatively, you could find out if your workplace has a disposable facemask recycling bin, such as the TerraCycle Zero Waste Box.
You can purchase the boxes from the TerraCycle website, starting from £132.72.
However, the best way to cut down on the pollution caused by single-use masks is to stop buying them, and instead opt for reusable masks.
Nina explained to Metro.co.uk: ‘We can all do our bit by wearing reusable masks made from breathable fabrics like cotton.
‘These are just as effective and safe for the public as disposable alternatives, and far less harmful for the environment.
‘We need to move away from our throwaway system, reduce the amount of wasteful disposable plastic we’re producing in the first place and prioritise reusables wherever possible.’
Additionally, a Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) spokesperson told Metro.co.uk: ‘It’s worth noting that, as well as being more environmentally friendly than single use masks, reusable face coverings also make sound financial sense.’
You can either buy reusable masks online, or make them yourself at home.
Just make sure you clean your mask after every use.
However, it is worth noting that cloth face masks are widely believed to be less effective in stopping the spread of Covid-19 than medical face masks.
Make sure that you choose a good quality face mask that is triple-layered, designed to fit around the face, and made of water-resistant fabric with a high number of threads and finer weave.
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