With more and more Britons being told to cover their faces, masks are quickly becoming an environmental problem far greater than we could have imagined.
To manage the spread of coronavirus, face coverings are now mandatory on public transport, in shops and some enclosed spaces across the UK. In the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics for Britain, it was revealed that up to 96% of adults who had left their homes in the past week had done so wearing a face covering, proving how habitual the wearing of face masks has become.
This increase of mask-wearing has led to an extraordinary increase in the production of disposable masks and the UN trade body, UNCTAD has estimated that global sales will total some $166 billion this year, up from around $800 million in 2019.
The problem with disposable face masks
According to a 2018 estimate by the UN Environment Programme, 570,000 tonnes of plastic flow into the Mediterranean each year – that is equal to dumping 33,800 plastic bottles every minute into the sea.
With plastic already causing extreme environmental damage, it is no wonder that environmentalists are concerned about the added pollution that disposable face coverings will create. That is because disposable face masks often contain plastics such as polypropylene, which is a long-lasting material that can remain in the environment for 450 years.
In Hong Kong, during a recent survey trip to the Soko Islands, the NGO OceansAsia found hundreds of discarded single-use masks washed up on a 100-metre stretch of beach. Gary Stokes, founder and director of the ocean-centred NGO, raised the concerning point that, with a population of 7 million people wearing one to two disposable masks each day, the increase in the amount of plastic pollution entering the oceans, in Hong Kong alone, is bound to be substantial.
It is expected that around 75% of disposable masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills or floating in the seas. This will cause severe environmental damage – and the financial cost, in areas such as tourism and fisheries, is estimated to cost around $40 billion according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Not only can these discarded face masks risk spreading the coronavirus to waste collectors and litter pickers, but the open burning or uncontrolled incineration of masks is likely to lead to the release of toxins into the environment, a cause of secondary transmission of diseases to humans.
These masks also risk causing long-term damage to animals and plants. Plastic waste can destroy environments and cripple eco-systems and because some animals cannot tell the difference between plastic and their food, they risk choking on pieces of litter. Animals that eat plastic also risk becoming malnourished, as the material fills up their stomachs, but provides them with no nutrients. Smaller animals have also been known to become entangled in the elastic within the masks.
Climate and business spokeswoman Sarah Olney told the BBC that single-use face masks are creating an enormous amount of waste and recommended that people choose environmentally-friendly reusable alternatives. Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, has also pointed to the fact that the surge in disposable mask use has come “at a time when we are clearly drowning in plastic” and warns that the public may potentially be asked to wear face masks for years to come if the pandemic continues, reinforcing the need for people to use sustainable face masks.
Environmentally-friendly face masks
Although reusable masks are a far better solution, how you choose to clean them can make a big difference to the size of your ecological footprint. The University College London team examined the manufacture, use and disposal of masks and found that hand washing masks increased their environmental impact. Disposable masks with filters were also found to be more damaging than alternative options, such as biodegradable masks, because the small filters are often made from plastic and have to be discarded after every use.
At Bonnie Bio, we’re proud to say that, when our products break down, they break down consistently with other natural materials. Our disposable 3-ply face coverings are 100% compostable. They are made from PLA, which means they provide viral protection and prevent cross-contamination of disease. When these face coverings biodegrade or decompose, they create carbon dioxide, biomass and water, which poses no danger to the environment.
This sustainable alternative is not only durable, but offers effective filtration without the toxic effect on the environment.