Whether you are strolling down the street, jogging in the park, or walking the dog along the beach, there is one sight you cannot fail to miss: discarded face masks.
Trodden into the mud, caught on trees and bushes, in the gutter, washed up on shore lines and floating in rivers — they are simply everywhere. Masks have become a bigger polluting menace than the once ubiquitous plastic bag.
It is ironic that just as Britain was finally getting to grips with the scourge of plastic pollution, the well-meaning use of billions of face masks to combat Covid-19 has created a new explosion in the use of plastic that threatens to slam all our progress into reverse.
Every day, according to research by shopping comparison site finder.com, we could be discarding 54.5 million masks nationwide, usually after using them just once.
That’s over 1.6 billion a month. Enough to blanket London in just two days.
Keep Britain Tidy reports that masks have overtaken much of the other plastic detritus — bottles, bags and coffee cups — that littered the streets of towns and cities and scarred the countryside.
Before masks became commonplace due to the pandemic, plastic bags were the plague of wild life. Pictured: A rare turtle with multiple plastic bags lodged in its gut, and is slowly dying
Since last June, it has found masks and disposable gloves at 14 per cent of the sites it surveys, as opposed to 10 per cent for plastic bags at their worst.
And masks are a menace to wildlife, too. In September, the RSPCA urged people to ‘snip the straps’ of disposable face masks after there were reports of birds getting snarled up in them.
‘For many years, the public have been aware of the message to cut up plastic six-pack rings before throwing them away to stop animals getting tangled in them — and now we are keen to get out the message that the same should be done for face masks,’ said chief executive Chris Sherwood.
‘We’re concerned that discarded face masks could become a significant hazard, particularly to wild animals and birds.’
How to cover up like an eco champion
Henosis: Thought to be the world’s first compostable surgical masks (right), these are made from biodegradable polylactic acid. The Leeds firm say its masks break down in 12 weeks, compared to hundreds of years for regular coverings.
To order, email [email protected] £25 plus VAT for a box of 50.
Ecovibe: These vegan, machine-washable face coverings are biodegradable and come in a range of colours and patterns. Made in the UK from 100 per cent cotton with natural rubber head straps.
ecovibe.co.uk, £6 per mask with 50p from each sale going to the NHS.
Boden: Each set is made from the ends of soft jersey fabric rolls, reducing waste while adding a spot of colour.
boden.co.uk, £20 for a pack of three.
MAASK: These reusable masks are made from plastic ocean-waste, and come with five disposable filters that fit into an internal pocket.
Eco Living: Reusable and made from 100 per cent organic cotton, a comfortable alternative. Even the delivery boxes are made from recycled materials.
plastic freedom.co.uk, £5.99 each.
And the legacy of the current usage of masks is likely to persist for centuries to come.
The problem is that most general purpose single-use masks contain at least one layer of a plastic called polypropylene, which can take up to 450 years to decompose.
Surgical-grade versions are even more damaging. The outer blue layer (which acts as a barrier to droplets), the middle layer (which filters particles) and the inner layer (that absorbs hot air) are all composed of polypropylene.
What’s more, they are packed and delivered in yet more plastic. It has been estimated that if every Briton used a single mask every day for a year, we would generate 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste in addition to the 57,000 tonnes of packaging they arrived in.
Nor can face masks be easily recycled (it is not regarded as cost-effective), meaning they must be sent to incinerators or landfill. Over the past 50 years, the use of plastics has soared 20-fold but, after decades of neglect, we were beginning to address this crisis.
It began with the Mail’s campaign against single-use plastic bags. Ever since the Government placed a 5p charge on them in England in October, 2015 (rising to 10p this spring), the annual number provided by supermarkets has dropped by billions.
Where once Britons, on average, used 140 such bags a year, now they use only four.
Meanwhile, the amount of plastic waste going to landfill has been halved and the amount being recycled has doubled. Exports of plastic waste have also fallen.
Ministers banned microbeads in 2018, followed by plastic straws, cotton buds and drink stirrers last year.
Coffee chains were encouraging customers to bring their own cups, and there were plans for a plastic bottle deposit return scheme.
The Government was aiming to make all plastic packaging ‘recyclable, reusable or compostable’ within four years.
Now the need for face masks is exacerbating one of the world’s biggest environmental crises
Fortunately, there are ways of tackling it, without forgoing the vital function that masks provide.
Former printer Brian Hammond, whose Leeds-based company lost 95 per cent of its business printing promotional material for events and the hospitality industry when the pandemic took hold, is at the forefront of the drive to produce eco-friendly versions.
A gull carrying a discarded mask in its beak at Knightstone Causeway, Weston-super-Mare
Hammond and another printer, Mark Bennett, hit upon the idea of making promotional masks — and then later, after clients complained the masks were turning up as litter, compostable ones.
After much research, they discovered that instead of using polypropylene, they could use three layers of different materials based on polylactic acid, a substance made from the starch of plants such as corn, cassava, sugar cane or sugar beet.
Used masks can be thrown on a compost heap, where they will turn into organic fertiliser.
And Hammond’s company, Henosis Masks, is not the only innovative player in the recycling sector; other researchers sing the praises of the abacá plant in the production of face masks.
A relative of the banana tree that is grown in the Philippines, abacá is said to be stronger than plastic, repels water better and decomposes within two months.
There are also simpler solutions to hand, such as reusable, highly-protective N95 masks, which come with recyclable filters.
But simplest of all, of course, are cloth masks, which perform almost as well as single-use ones — but can simply be washed and reused.
So, even in a pandemic, we can continue beating back the plastic menace. We can’t afford not to.