sustainable face masks

Face Masks – Are They Sustainable?

At Ethical, we’ll never take the stance that wearing face masks is wrong. Granted, there’s many a vocal campaigner who considers the simple face mask an infringement of basic human rights. Anti-mask protests have been commonplace, with the affronted claiming that masks represent a form of systematic control. True, mask-wearing mandates are put in place across the globe, yet Karens and conspiracy theorists alike refuse to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. Only this January, a group of American anti-mask protestors stormed a mall in Los Angeles. This is not something we can get behind. Ethical is pretty secure in its positioning: it’s best to don face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. That said, the way in which they’re made, used and disposed of should not be beyond scrutiny. There’s always room to ask: are face masks sustainable?

Are Face Masks Sustainable?

disposable face mask

Well, the research would indicate that disposable masks are certainly not. A report published by the University of Southern Denmark concluded 129 billion face masks are used globally each month – almost three million every minute. Most of these are disposable face masks made from plastic microfibers. Researchers in the scientific journal, Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering, state: “with increasing reports on inappropriate disposal of masks, it is urgent to recognize this potential environmental threat and prevent it from becoming the next plastic problem.”

Masking an Environmental Issue

In November 2020, TradeWaste.co.uk polled 4,500 members of the public to ask about their use of face masks. The survey by the waste company found that 10% of facemasked are reused, while 90% are discarded. In addition, 53.3m face masks are sent to landfill each day. 

What’s worse is that the chemicals contained in the masks pose great threat to the environment. In addition to non-woven fabric and activated carbon, face masks typically contain large amounts of polypropylene (PP) – a type of commodity plastic that takes a long time to degrade, releasing a lot of toxic substances during the process. As all face masks sold on the market must go through quality testing, it’s fair to assume that these masks won’t break down easily. In fact, as disposable masks cannot be readily biodegraded, they will typically fragment into smaller plastic particles. 

It goes without saying that much media attention is rightfully focused on the devastating impact of plastic in our environment. We only need to look at Netflix’s latest documentary hit, Seaspiracy, for a review of the effects of plastic marine debris. In fact, between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by marine animals. According to UNESCO, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 aquatic mammals. By 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

What Can Businesses Do?

Businesses are opening back up. This week, gyms and outdoor activity venues opened to groups of 6. Next month, non-essential retail stores and hair salons are amongst the businesses that will be available to the same social bubbles. Business owners will have to operate under the existing social contact limitations – therefore relying on face coverings and PPE to protect customers and staff alike. It goes without saying – for ethically minded businesses, disposable face masks represent a sustainability issue. So what should be done? Well, researchers from the University of Southern Denmark propose the following four measures for businesses:

  1. Set up mask-only trash cans for collection and disposal.
  1. Consider standardization, guidelines, and strict implementation of waste management for mask wastes.
  1. Replace disposable masks with reusable face masks like cotton masks.
  1. Consider the development of biodegradable disposal masks.

Who’s Doing Right?

It also pays to praise the businesses that are succeeding on this front: in a bid to reduce mask waste, Wilko has announced plans to launch face mast recycling boxes in 150 of its UK stores. Working with ReWorked and Scan2Recycle, the scheme will recycle the PP in most disposable masks. ReWorked will collect the boxes and, after a 72-hour quarantine, wash and shred the masks. The resulting material will be mixed with other plastic recyclates, to make a material suitable for building products like furniture.

Other UK companies that are providing disposable mask recycling points for staff and corporate customers include: Pennells garden centres, Health Vet Clinic, Unilever, BMW and The Cotswolds Company. However, any business can join the scheme and sign up for PPE recycling points via ReWorked.

Businesses can claim a sanitiser and PPE bin from ReWorked – made from 100% recycled waste plastics. The charity will then arrange regular waste pick-ups before recycling the plastic. It goes without saying – taking sustainability seriously is of growing importance to your customers – considering environmental impact not only helps the planet but also shows your company values

TerraCycle also offers a mask recycling service. Businesses or individuals can buy a Zero Waste Box, fill it with disposable masks and PPE, and then send it back to the company (postage is pre-paid) so that they can recycle the contents.

Charities such as City to Sea are also urging the general public to think about adopting reusable masks to decrease waste. City to Sea chief executive and co-founder Natalie Fee states that, “if every person in the UK used one less single-use face mask every day for a year, 66,000 tonnes of plastic waste could be avoided”.  

Fashioning Sustainable Face Masks

As always, there’s a boujee option for the ethically minded. Last year, the British Fashion Council introduced its ‘Great British Designer Face Coverings: Reusable, for People and Planet’ Campaign. A joint campaign with Bags of Ethics, it focused on a line of sustainable and reusable non-medical face coverings to use alongside existing social distancing measures. Designed by six British designers, including Halpern, Julien Macdonald, Liam Hodges, Mulberry, RAEBURN and RIXO, the project to raised £1 million to support the NHS Charities together COVID 19 Urgent Appeal, BFC foundation Fashion Fund and The Wings of hope children’s charity.

Concluding Thoughts

The takeaway is pretty simple: businesses have a responsibility to protect their staff and customers from the coronavirus. However, that doesn’t supersede any responsibility to the environment. When possible, disposable face masks should be replaced by reusable alternatives. In all other situations – reducing plastic waste by partnering with organisations such as ReWorked and TerraCycle is the best way to circumnavigate the environmental devastation brought on by protecting against an already devastating disease. 

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