Impacts of Disposable Face Masks

We need to talk and the waste crisis that disposable protective wear is now causing. The mounting waste is beginning to find its way into our landfills, incinerators, oceans, streets, and forests where its new and environmentally damaging life begins.

In a recent Guardian article, Operation Mer Propre, a French environmentalist group who clean litter from the Mediterranean seabed, reported a steady incline in single use protective wear being found on the Mediterranean ocean floor. This includes masks, gloves and empty hand sanitiser bottles, all of which do not biodegrade for over 200 years, in fact face masks do not biodegrade for 450 years!  

Current plastic-based ocean pollution figures stand at 13 million tonnes a year according to the UN’s 2018 report, that’s 35,616 tonnes a day! Total world plastic waste figures are difficult to pinpoint but in 2016 The World Bank reported an estimate of 242 million tonnes a year!

The UCL’s recent report (The environmental dangers of employing single-use face masks as part of a COVID-19 exit strategy) on the implications of disposable masks state this “If every person in the UK used one disposable surgical mask each day for a year, this would create over 128,000 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic waste, 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging”. That makes a total of a 251,000 tonne increase a year in domestic waste alone. The NHS alone, have taken receipt of over 1 billion pieces of PPE this year of which facemasks are a key component; we all agree this is a necessity to keep staff protected within their working environment but it is not necessary for the general public to wear the same facemasks when going about their daily lives. We won’t know the true figures until next year but its rather startling. It’s hard to comprehend the extent of this plastic waste if these figures were to be multiplied across the world, current estimates by Environmental Science and Technology stand at 194 billion disposable masks and gloves being used worldwide every month!

Disposable face coverings should be thrown away after each use, or as soon as they are damp, according to the World Health Organization. This includes the lighter, pleated ones as well as the sturdier, particle-filtering masks. So what happens when you dispose of one of these masks? For a start you should be disposing of them properly; if you’re in the UK that’s in your black refuse bags, you should definitely not just be dropping them on the streets once you’ve finished wearing them. Once inside a black refuse bag they go to one of two locations, the landfill or the incinerator, both of which are environmentally damaging.  In a landfill the 450 year long biodegrading process involves leaching chemicals into the groundwater along with plastic particulates and releasing greenhouse gases into the air which are a mix of methane and CO2. If incinerated, face masks add to the 5,000,000 tonnes of CO2 which is emitted into the air by incinerators every single year in the UK alone. Those that are not disposed of properly or do not make it to one of the two official processes, end up in the sea, in other countries landfills or strewn across the land, damaging habitats, waterways and our own food sources. You can read more about this in our other blog post about fast fashion here.

There is a very simple fix to this. DON’T USE DISPOSABLE FACE MASKS. Instead use reusable machine washable fabric face coverings, the most environmentally friendly being ones that do not contain melt blown filters which are also unrecyclable.

There are many brands now adopting this new product, us being one. We produce reusable, machine washable face masks which can be washed up to 200 times meaning that for many users the mask will last up to or even over a year depending on usage. It is also much more cost effective and, in our opinion, more stylish.

If you would like to see our collection, you can view it here. 10% of the profits go to the Trussell Trust, feeding those in need.