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  • Writer's pictureSarah Anelay - Clear Public Space

1: Face Masks - Pandemic Plastics and the economics of sustainability

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

Coronavirus waste has quickly become its own unique form of pollution, enhancing the plastic pandemic that has rocketed since the 1950s. The plastic generated by the pandemic is largely single-use and not recyclable. In some form, it will be on our beautiful planet Earth for centuries.

From masks and PPE, to hand sanitiser bottles to plastic separator screens, plastic waste has boomed in this pandemic. Is the pandemic making our use of unnecessary single-use plastic (#USUP) even worse?

This new blog series (#plasticpandemic) explores pandemic plastics, what their impact is and what we can do to stop this new deluge of plastics from exacerbating our antecedent plague of plastics.

Often more sustainable, eco-friendly alternatives are dismissed as not economically viable, inconvenient or arduous.

This new series investigates the cost of pandemic plastics, not just to the planet, but to our wallet.

In these uncertain times, we’re all desperately looking to save our pennies and the good news is, that making sustainable changes to your plastic usage is extremely economical.

The Issue

The first of this series (#Facemasks) covers what has quickly become a mainstay of all of our lives: the face mask.

If someone said a year ago that in 2020 you couldn’t get on a bus or go to the shop without a face covering, we’d all have dismissed them as a doomsday pariah.

And yet, one of Covid-19’s smaller, but none the less infuriating, annoyances is arriving at the shop or bus stop only to realise you’ve left your mask at home.

Blue disposable face masks have quickly become as common as a Coca-Cola can, or a heated Brexit discussion. Such masks are made from a variety of polymers, including polypropylene, polyethylene, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyester and vinyl. When disposed of these plastics break down or fragment into smaller size particles under 5mm, or “microplastics”.

The dangers of microplastics have been well-documented and, correctly, demonised. One study showed that microplastics were present in every single human tissue analysed. Other research, published in 2019, found microplastics in snow from the Alps to the Arctic. In 2020, polystyrene fragments inside the gut of Antarctic animals were found for the first time.

According to UCL's Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, if every person in the UK used one single-use face mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste. Disposable face masks cannot be recycled because PPE classes as medical waste. Therefore, even when disposed of correctly (i.e. in a bin not littered) disposable face masks go to landfill or incineration which can lead to toxic fumes and contributes to climate change.

Furthermore, disposable masks might not be as hygienic as you think. According to a recent study, the indiscriminate disposal of single-use face masks can actually exacerbate disease outbreaks, as plastic particulars are known to propagate microbes such as invasive pathogens.

The Solution

This is an obvious one. Wear a reusable face mask! There are many benefits over wearing a reusable face mask rather than a disposable, most notably:

1. They’re better for the environment- by buying a reusable face mask (or making your own) you are investing into protecting the environment by avoiding adding to the growing number

of disposable facemasks to landfills and oceans.

2. Reusable masks are more comfortable and breathable than itchy, hot medical-grade ones.

3. They are better for your skin! Many reusable face masks on the market are made of non-comedogenic, natural materials such as cotton or silk. Disposable masks are made from synthetic materials which may clog your pores and cause ‘mascne’.

4. Reusable masks are stylish (or at least more stylish than horrible blue disposable ones!)

5. They’re easy to wash- no hand-washing or dry-cleaning necessary. Just pop your mask in the washing basket at the end of the day*

6. Owning a few washable masks stops you from getting involved in the inevitable second-wave of panic buying disposable masks (and considering Brexit trade talks, who knows what the availability will be like!)

*The WHO advises washing fabric masks in hot water (at least 60 degrees Centigrade) after each day of use. Just like your underwear, you don’t want to reuse a dirty mask. My advice is to buy a pack of three to five so you always have one clean.

The Economics

Disposable masks are widely seen as the cheaper option. But is this true?

Below are listed five different sellers of multipack disposable face masks (plus the ridiculous price I was forced to pay outside a tube station when I’d forgotten my mask). Prices per mask are variable but are generally around £0.20 - £0.40.

On first glance, this definitely seems like the cheaper option compared to reusable or washable masks. Prices of reusable masks do vary greatly, but these are a few examples:

According to the World Health Organisation, disposable face masks should be thrown away immediately after they have been removed, if you have touched the front of the mask or if the mask gets damp. Realistically, this means that the average person would get through 1-5 masks a day.

The necessary number of masks you would need to use to protect yourself, your loved ones, and others around you, would total around £0.50- £3.45 a day.

The average price-per-mask is approximately £0.20- £0.40. If you were to use 3 masks a day (as per WHO guidance on how to use disposable masks properly) this would cost you:

£0.60 - £1.20 per day

£4.20 - £8.40 per week

£16.80 - £33.60 per month

£201.60 - £403.20 per year

So, making the switch to a reusable mask will not only help save the planet but your precious cash too! Look out in a week for our next #plasticpandemic in the series.


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