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Face Mask Disposal Still a High Concern

dumped masks
03 February 2021 | Updated 11 February 2021

Litter pickers across the UK are reporting a huge increase in the number of dumped contaminated disposable face masks being spotted during their patrols, as the number of single use masks used in the UK during 2021 is feared to reach 19.5 billion.

“The scale of the problem of carelessly dumped disposable face masks is massive – we use 52 million single use plastic masks a day and sadly some of these are being dropped, or simply fall from people’s pockets – sightings are increasingly common now”, explains Charlotte Green of TradeWaste UK.


"As a country we have worked so hard to reduce plastic consumption, yet we are sleepwalking into another nightmare”



– Charlotte Green
TradeWaste UK


Increased Single Use Impact


The number of disposable face masks that will be used across the UK in 2021 has been calculated at 19.5 billion. A proportion of these are discarded either carelessly or accidentally, meaning many end up being blown into woods making their journey into streams, rivers and eventually the sea. In perspective, the figures translate as follows:


  1. 52 million a day
  2. 1.6 billion a month
  3. 19.5 billion a year - weight equivalent to 5 ½ Eiffel Towers

The problem of how to dispose of masks is tricky, with no easy way to recycle and conflicting ways to handle potentially contaminated masks – the real problem is the littering caused by careless users. In December, TradeWaste reported that we were even using as many as 53 million a day. They noted how the multi layer plastic makeup made them particularly difficult to process.


Unregulated Disposal


Litter pickers across the country are reporting an increasing number of masks being collected during their rounds. In Fife, the Street Champions group reported finding 1 mask for every 60m they patrolled near a shopping area in Rosyth - they have collected a total of 3,500 since March. This is common across the whole of the UK.


Max Ratcliffe, aged 6, from Menston in West Yorkshire took part in a home-schooling project to examine litter and its effect on the environment in his local wood. He was shocked by how many masks he spotted, with 1 dumped mask found every 50m on a path popular with dog walkers. “I think it’s really bad. People should put them in the bin. Animals might eat them, and they might die”, reported Max.

Used masks are not only a littering issue, but also a health and safety one.

“Used masks are tricky and you should not touch a used mask – they should be treated like any other potentially contaminated material and only handled professionally using the right protecting equipment”, explains Charlotte Green, “and there are obvious risks associated with coming into contact with a used mask”.

“The way to tackle this potential environmental disaster is for everyone to move towards washable reusable masks, not only will this cut down on single use mask litter, but it also reduces the environmental impacts of manufacturing 19.5 billion plastic masks in the first place. As a country we have worked so hard to reduce plastic consumption, yet we are sleepwalking into another nightmare”, she concludes.


Savings with Reusable PPE


TradeWaste are encouraging businesses and individuals to rectify this issue at the source by wit their Ditch Your Disposable campaign. This echoes similar initiatives pushed across many industries over the last decade, as pressure has mounted to consider the impact of non-biodegradable plastics in the enivronment, encouraging alternatives to plastic straws and cups for example.

By switching to re-usable masks in 2021, it’s estimated you can save £190, as a personal incentive.

  1. A single use disposable face mask costs 18p
  2. Over a year using 3 per day this is £197.10
  3. A washable face mask costs £1.40 (Pack of 5 is £6.99)
  4. If you can use 5 masks by washing them, then over a year this is a saving of £190.11

Of course it's not practical for workers in facilities like hospitals, clinics, care home, other frontline sectors and those contracted temporarily to use items of PPE more than once which is why it's important that the rest of us make up for that. Just as you cannot neccessarily stop the large amounts of waste in commercial production, you can recycle at a consumer level.

Picture: a discarded disposable mask.

Article written by Bailey Sparkes | Published 03 February 2021


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