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Disposable Face Masks: The Environmental Impact

Disposable Face Masks: Are They Having An Environmental Impact?

There is no avoiding the fact that face masks have become an integral part of our everyday attire and an essential accessory every time we leave the house. Throughout the majority of 2020, face coverings have been an absolute necessity in supermarkets and corner shops to petrol stations and hairdressers.  So, it’s no surprise that there are now growing concerns surrounding their negative environmental impact. Could disposable face masks come to rival the dangers of the dreaded plastic carrier bag, taking almost 500 years to biodegrade? Since we’re coming to the end of WRAP’s Recycle Week, we thought we’d take a look into this new plastic problem and what can be done to prevent it.

disposable face masks

What are some of the figures surrounding disposable face masks?

  1. In February, a total of 70 masks were collected on a Hong Kong beach clean across just 100 metres of shoreline.
  2. Currently, the UK’s annual demand for face masks totals a massive 24.7 billion. How many of them will be simply thrown away after one single use?
  3. The amount of plastic that already flows into The Mediterranean each year equates to 570,000 tonnes. How much that figure will rise due to disposable face masks is yet to be determined, but incredibly worrying.
  4. According to the Guardian, “Conservationists have warned that the coronavirus pandemic could spark a surge in ocean pollution – adding to a glut of plastic waste that already threatens marine life – after finding disposable masks floating like jellyfish”
  5. The UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub highlighted that if everyone in the UK wore a disposable face mask every day for a whole year, it would generate 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste.
  6. Could waste collectors or passers-by be at risk of catching the virus if they come into contact with a discarded face mask? Quite possibly. It has been proven that COVID-19 harbours on plastic surfaces for at least a week.
  7. Its impossible and quite concerning to calculate the amount of animals and plants that may have been impacted by disposable face masks, either by choking on them or being subject to dangerous chemicals that cling onto them.

disposable face masks

So what can we do to be more environmentally friendly?

  1. Don’t buy them at all! Choose reusable options and make sure to machine wash them frequently to keep them clean. Take a look at our blog here for suggestions on eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives that are also incredibly wearable and breathable. 
  2. If you do choose to wear disposable face masks, whatever you do, don’t litter! Even if you think you can throw them on the floor somewhere discrete, don’t do it. Wait until you get home to bin them or use one of the many public bins dotted around your local town.
  3. Unfortunately, disposable face masks cannot be recycled. This would be an incredible solution to this new modern-day issue however face coverings get stuck in recycling equipment and put waste workers at risk through handling and sorting through them. So make sure to put them in your black plastic bin bags.

reusable face coverings

For more information on how to lead a plastic-free lifestyle, click here. 

Zoe Allison

Zoe Allison

Writer and expert