Reusable face masks reduce risk of Covid-19 infection and prevent single-use plastic waste, say green groups
As new mandatory rules requiring people to wear face coverings when visiting shops come into force in England today, the public has been urged to wear reusable face masks where possible in order to avoid adding to the growing mountain of single-use plastic waste.
The UK government has long been advising the public to wear face coverings on public transport in order to help combat the spread of the virus, while in Northern Ireland and Scotland it has already been mandatory to wear face masks on public transport for several weeks.
Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the European Centre of Disease Prevention and Control and others have concluded reusable masks are, when combined with social distancing and regular handwashing instances, effective at curbing spread of the virus.
Moreover, reusable face masks made from comfortable and breathable textiles such as cotton can be produced easily, are washable, and present far less of a risk to the environment and wildlife, according to Greenpeace.
Yet if every person in the UK wore a single-use plastic facemask every day for a year, it could create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging, together making up a huge 124,000 tonnes in total.
Dr Jennifer Cole, Northern European regional hub coordinator of the Planetary Health Alliance at Royal Holloway University of London, said single-use disposable masks and plastic gloves "must be avoided for general public use".
"Cloth face masks are effective and must be made more widely available and plastic gloves are completely unnecessary for general public use," she said.
There have been reports of disposable plastic masks and gloves being found by divers in the south of France and in the beak of a kite in Hong Kong. In Chelmsford, Essex, a young seagull was found by the RSPCA with sore and swollen legs wrapped in a disposable plastic mask last weekend.
It follows a separate study last night which estimated that the amount of plastic which ends up in the ocean is on track to triple by as soon as 2040, rising from around 11 million metric tonnes today to a whopping 29 million electric tonnes if current consumption and production patterns continue.
Louise Edge, senior campaigner at Greenpeace, said that disposable masks were not inherently safer than reusable alternatives, and that disposing face coverings after just one use risked contaminating the environment and oceans.
"Plastic masks float like jellyfish in water so turtles can mistake them for food and other wildlife like seabirds can become tangled in the plastic," she said. "We know better than to add to the plastic pollution problem."
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