Face Coverings and the Environment

From the 24 July it will be mandatory to wear a face covering in both shops and supermarkets in England as part of the ongoing response to the global Coronavirus pandemic as the scientific evidence available suggests that when used correctly, “wearing a face covering may reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets in certain circumstances, helping to protect others”.  The current government advice indicates that this covering does not have to be a mask, you can “use a scarf, bandana, religious garment or hand-made cloth covering”, just as long as it will securely fit around the side of the face.  The government intends to regulate the wearing of face coverings through granting the police the power to fine individuals £100 if they refuse to comply, which has added to an already contentious debate about why face coverings were not mandatory from the beginning of lockdown, who is exempt from wearing one and how reliable the science actually is.  There is also a growing concern around the environmental impact of single use face masks which have begun to wash up in the world’s oceans or be carelessly discarded like the one above that I came across whilst walking my dog in some local woods.

In June the French non-profit group Operation Mer Propre, who regularly pick up litter along the Cote d’Azur reported divers had discovered what was described as “Covid waste – dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitiser beneath the waves of the Mediterranean”.  At a time when the world’s oceans are already choking beneath an unstoppable tide of plastic waste, with the largest accumulation covering 1.6 million square kilometres between Hawaii and California, this discovery is an environmental red flag, especially as during lockdown there has been some positive environmental green shoots of change.  For example, the number of people cycling has increased up to 200% which is beneficial to overall public health as if individuals can improve their fitness this will reduce the strain on health services, which is vital in the current situation.  There has also been a reduction in air pollution levels with some cities seeing a drop of more than 40%, which will in part be explained by the reduction in movement permitted during the lockdown as people were not using their cars or public transport, but the government has shown a commitment to maintaining these improvements through an investment of £2 billion in walking and cycling.  It would therefore be a backward step to litter the environment with single use face masks which pose an ecological threat due to the material used in their construction as well as posing an obvious health risk.

In April the ‘Plastic Waste Innovation Hub’ which is part of UCL published a policy about single use face masks, reporting that if every person in the UK “used one disposable surgical mask each day for a year, this would create over 128,000 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic waste”.  The policy document also highlights the importance of disposing of the mask correctly as technically in a clinical setting they would be “considered medical waste and typically directed to incineration”, therefore the public must ensure they dispose of these masks safely.  

Face coverings, similar to the accessibility of green spaces during lockdown are a potential economic and social divider across the country as not everyone will have the finances to purchase reusable masks or the ability to make one for themselves, therefore single use masks do have a place.  The Coronavirus pandemic has presented the world with a set of unique circumstances which have evolved quickly and requires every individual to be vigilant and responsible for their own actions, therefore if using a single use mask we must be mindful of disposing of it correctly to ensure it does not end up polluting our environment or passing on the virus to those around us.