The Mail on Sunday
Eco disaster fears over 124,000 tons of used face masks
BILLIONS of face masks could end up in landfill if people don’t stop using singleuse coverings, experts have warned.
Scientists estimate that more than 124,000 tons of unrecyclable masks – the equivalent weight of 10,000 London buses – could be dumped each year unless a greener alternative is found.
There have already been reports of sea birds becoming tangled in the elastic cords that wrap around the ears. The single-use masks are also washing up on beaches or being dumped in the streets after becoming mandatory in certain enclosed spaces.
Martin Dorey, founder of the 2 Minute Beach Clean project which maintains 850 litter- picking stations around the country, said: ‘We’ve noticed so much of it. We’re trying to recommend to everybody that they use reusable and washable masks because these things are plastic and they won’t bio-degrade.
‘People are also less likely to pick them up because of the perceived risk, so it’s getting left. This stuff is toxic – it will kill ocean life and end up in the food chain.’
Single- use surgical masks are commonly made of polypropylene, a type of thermoplastic. Scientists at University College London calculated that if every person in the UK used one disposable surgical mask each day for a year, it would create 124,000 tons of waste. On top of that is a staggering 57,000 tons of plastic packaging that also cannot be recycled.
The academics have suggested that councils install disposal units for the masks on every street. They have also called for a public messaging campaign to get people to opt for reusable fabric coverings.
Emily Stevenson, who runs Cornish community beach clean-ups for the community interest company Beach Guardian, said: ‘ As soon as lockdown restrictions were lifted, we saw a sharp increase in litter, especially around Brighton and Bournemouth beaches. One thing that has been really tragic to see is the addition of PPE litter.
‘ It’s something we have never seen before and now we are finding them on every beach clean. Last Thursday, we found five face masks in just half an hour at a beach.
‘I went to my local supermarket this week and saw discarded face masks everywhere. In ten minutes, I had picked up 12.
‘ This has every opportunity to flow into water courses, into the rivers and oceans.’
About 194 bil l i on masks and gloves are being used across the world each month, according to a recent study.
Many firms have taken to producing fabric masks, while one company, Mask Bros, has created a fully recyclable surgical mask that is accepted by most councils in their normal collections.
As well as the dangers from discarded masks, anti-plastics campaigners warn that 99 per cent of alcohol gels are likely to contain microplastics or similar ingredients that harm the planet.
Mr Dorey said: ‘The gels contain a polymer which means when the alcohol dissolves, you are left with nano plastics on your hands. So the next time you wash, they go straight into the sea. It’s a disaster really.’
‘This stuff is toxic and will end up in the food chain’