It is becoming increasingly clear that PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is going to be part of our everyday lives for some time. Face masks are a key part of policy to control the spread of the virus in our shops, public transport, and workplaces, but what is the cost to the environment?
In the years before the pandemic, there was an awakening in our society that the consumption of single-use plastics had got out of control. Public awareness was heightened by David Attenborough showing us plastic in the oceans on Blue Planet 2 and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall walking past mountains of UK ‘recycled’ plastic being illegally burnt in Malaysia in War on Plastic. Some political action is happening, with the plastic bag charge being increased to 10p in 2021 and a ban on plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds coming into force last month (October 2020).
Yet Covid-19 has undone so much progress on the endeavours to reduce single-use plastics: the plastic bag charge has been waived for supermarket home deliveries during the pandemic, coffee shops no longer accept reusable mugs for takeaway drinks, schools are serving school lunches in plastic takeaway containers in classrooms. Yet potentially the biggest plastic problem of the pandemic is PPE.
A poll in September suggested that 51% of Britons are opting for single-use face coverings. If this many people use two masks a day, that could mean over 50 million single-use face masks being discarded every day . If just 1% are disposed of incorrectly, that’s half a million face masks getting into the environment every day! Already, the evidence is stacking up: in August, one beach cleaner in Cornwall found 171 pieces of PPE in a one-hour litter pick , compared with 6 items pre-pandemic.
Litter and landfill
Everyone reading this has likely seen discarded PPE on the ground near their homes. Masks, gloves and wet wipes litter road verges, rivers and beaches, blighting our enjoyment of the outdoors. Incorrectly disposed PPE is a health hazard for humans, being a potential vector for the virus. This litter can cause harm to animal life through strangling, tangling, and ingestion. The number of animals trapped in face mask straps has led the RSPCA to advise people to ‘snip the straps’ when throwing away face masks . Wet wipes, which usually contain plastic, are laid down in sediments in our rivers and oceans, sometimes forming huge ‘wet wipe reefs’ one in the river Thames in West London is 50m long, with 201 wet wipes per square metre .
Even responsibly disposed waste has environmental impacts. The massive increase in single-use PPE and wet wipes associated with the pandemic is adding to the volume of waste being sent to landfill or burnt in incinerators.
Less obvious is what happens to the face masks as they begin to break down in the environment. The filter material for three-ply masks is most commonly made of polypropylene, a fossil fuel-derived plastic that takes hundreds of years to break down. In natural environments, physical and chemical processes can result in plastic degradation with plastic pieces breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics. These small plastics can be spread through air and water and ultimately be ingested by all kinds of organisms . Although their effects are poorly understood they are known to pose a threat to living organisms and even human health . The microplastic fragments can indirectly affect organisms in ecosystems by absorbing other pollutants such as mercury and lead, or harmful bacteria, leading to poisoning when these microplastics are ingested by organisms, which can be transferred up the food chain .
Production and transport impacts
A life cycle analysis comparison of single-use face masks and washable face coverings has revealed that the climate change impact of single-use face masks is 10 times that of washable masks . This analysis includes production, transport, laundry and disposal of each type, and factors in the impacts of raw materials used and transport of single-use masks to the UK, predominantly from China. Dr Robert Sluka, Lead Scientist for A Rocha’s Marine and Coastal Conservation Programme, hopes this pandemic will prompt a systems-based response to plastic pollution. Contacted for his opinion on plastic and the pandemic he said:
“The pandemic gives us an opportunity to look at systematic approaches to plastic pollution that reduce plastic waste and subsequent microplastic creation at all stages in plastic production, transport, use, and reuse.”
A sustainable future for face coverings?
If face coverings are here to stay for the foreseeable future as seems likely, we all have a responsibility to wear them wisely. Official government advice in the UK promotes using washable reusable face coverings where possible, and responsible disposal of single-use face coverings . The life cycle analysis study demonstrates that the best option for the environment is for each person to have four washable masks used in rotation and cleaned in a washing machine with other laundry . If single-use face masks are the only option in certain situations, make sure they are correctly disposed of in a general waste or clinical waste bin, so that the legacy of this pandemic is not detectable in our natural environments next year as litter, or in hundreds of years’ time as microplastic pollution.
Blog written by Hannah Gray, adapted from her original blog published by the University of East Anglia at bit.ly/GRTAMicroplastics.
Hannah graduated from the CRES course in 2020. She is a mum to two children and works at the University of East Anglia, managing environmental research projects in developing countries. Prior to this she worked in conservation management at the Broads National Park. She is member of Light of Life Baptist Church on the east Norfolk coast.
Image by Roksana Helscher from Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/corona-mask-waste-coronavirus-5340991/
 Neill, P. UK sending 1.6 billion face masks to landfill every month. Environment Journal (23 September 2020) https://environmentjournal.online/articles/uk-sending-1-6-billion-face-masks-to-landfill-every-month/
 Middleton, L. 194,000,000,000 face masks spark fear of ‘global plastic crisis’ Metro (9 August 2020) https://metro.co.uk/2020/08/09/171-pieces-ppe-found-beach-one-hour-litter-pick-cornwall-13104484/
 O’Brien, C. RSPCA says ‘snip the straps’ off face masks as Autumn Clean Cymru places focus on litter. RSPCA News (14 September 2020) https://news.rspca.org.uk/2020/09/14/rspca-says-snip-the-straps-off-face-masks-as-autumn-clean-cymru-places-focus-on-litter/
 Thames21. 23 thousand wet wipes discovered on stretch of Thames river bank. Thames21 (1 April 2019) https://www.thames21.org.uk/2019/04/23-thousand-wet-wipes-discovered-stretch-thames-river-bank/
 Ederer, B. & Sluka, R.D. (2020). Plastics in the Food Chain. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 72(3) 167-175
 Curren, E. & Leong, S.C.Y. (2019). Profiles of bacterial assemblages from microplastics of tropical coastal environments. Science of The Total Environment 655 doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.11.250
 Bradney, L. et al. (2019). Particulate plastics as a vector for toxic trace-element uptake by aquatic and terrestrial organisms and human health risk. Environment International 131 doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2019.104937
 The UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub. New publication on single-use masks. The UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub (13 August 2020). https://www.plasticwastehub.org.uk/news/new-publication-on-single-use-masks
 Department of Health and Social Care (2020) Face coverings: when to wear one, exemptions, and how to make your own (updated 4 November 2020) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own
 The UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub Ibid.