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Over 50 Million PPE Masks to UK Landfill Daily

Discarded Mask
01 December 2020 | Updated 12 January 2021
 

The UK is binning over 53 million disposable face masks every day as a result of unsustainable COVID-19 protection, with reports that many face masks are being carelessly discarded in the street ending up in streams and rivers.

Now that face mask wearing has become a standard part of lockdown life, their disposal is being highlighted as a major new environmental crisis, with masks being found in streams, rivers, and oceans – like the modern-day plastic bottle.

“If you walk around any street now you will see disposable face masks being blown around with leaves in the gutter – they are the new cigarette butt – people are simply chucking them after use. We know that 53 million are being sent to landfill each day – but just how many end-up elsewhere is the very scary part”, says Charlotte Green from Trade Waste.

Disposable face masks are typically made from plastic in three primary layers:

  1. Non-woven plastic fabric outer
  2. Melt-blown polymer filter such as polypropylene
  3. Non-woven plastic fabric inner
  4. Other – cotton ear loops and metal nose piece


The Impact of Masks


The other issue with a disposable mask are the ear loops and metal piece used to grip the nose – often thrown with these in-tact they can become entangled around animals and wildlife, especially so when they end up in water courses. Their composite makeup means that they are almost impossible to recycle without intensive deconstruction. Although some masks made fully from one recyclable plastic do exist, there are still issues.

Considered toxic waste, official government guidance is for them to go into black bins, and in commercial settings special care is taken to avoid broken links in the covid-secure chain. Despite being a recyclable plastic, they also won't be recycled by the council if the correct collection and treatment processes are available. However, some of the eco-disposable brands do offer their own partner recycling if the masks are sent back to them, after quarantine of the items for 72 hours where the user has tested positive.

A survey of 4,500 members of the UK public by Trade Waste found that the numbers of masks being discarded daily are truly staggering:

  1. 58.8 million face masks are were used daily in November UK
  2. 10 per cent are reused, 90 per cent are discarded
  3. 53.3 million face masks are sent to landfill each day
  4. Globally we are use 129 billion face masks per month

 

The main problem is that they are specifically designed to be chucked away after each use. In a medical setting this is controlled and necessary to a degree, but out in our towns and cities this is not managed, and generally masks are thrown in residential and street waste bins for landfill.

“We as a country need better disposal methods to cope with the huge numbers of disposable masks being thrown away – most cannot be recycled. If restrictions and mask use continue then this issue is going to get progressively worse – action needs to be taken today”, concludes Charlotte Green from Trade Waste.

"Disposable PPE, such as face masks, should never be placed with your household recycling," WRAP UK plastic expert Helen Bird told Which. Although not the ideal solutions, she says "it should go straight into your black bag waste bin. Using a reusable mask, which can be popped in with your washing after each use, is safe and better for the planet." Reusable fabric masks are not only more resilient and efficient, but they can be regularly washed and used on rotation with a few others to make them a more sustainable option. WRAP UK recently congratulated the public for Recycling Week 2020, on their efforts to continue recycling appropriate items despite the pressures of the pandemic.

Picture: a discarded face mask.

Article written by Bailey Sparkes | Published 01 December 2020

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