Littering of disposable masks - the new norm?

When I was growing up, I seem to remember littering typically consisted of cigarette butts, plastic bags and drinks cans. Perhaps I am showing my age on the former, as cigarette smoking peaked in the 1970s, and has since been in decline due to government messages, lack of advertising and, importantly, taxes on tobacco. Plastic bags are also in decline due to awareness raising and the carrier bag tax, and drinks containers consumed away from the home are likely to be incentivised for appropriate disposal under the Deposit Return Scheme in coming years.

I live in a rural village in Lincolnshire, which suffers very little littering, and our friendly local cleansing team keeps the streets in good order. However, this morning I saw a discarded face mask on the grass verge while out walking. A disposable face mask – non-recyclable and non-biodegradable mask of non-woven plastic. Many of us have seen or heard about the ‘Covid wastes’, often overseas, arising from PPE, it is a daunting subject, and one that we can’t ignore as we adjust our lives to the ‘new normal’. Indeed, the Beach Guardian reported this week that one environmentalist collected 171 items of discarded PPE from a Cornish beach in just an hour.

Like lots of people, I have opted for reusable fabric masks, made locally by a lady who is much more skilled with a sewing machine than I am. These only cost me a few pounds each, but reusable masks can retail for much more depending on your style and quality choices. You can buy disposable masks, however, for less than 5p each. Helpfully, and understandably, the government has temporarily reduced VAT to zero on face masks until at least the end of October – it is not restricted to disposable ones. I am not knocking this move at all, but given that the requirement to wear face coverings in certain settings is likely to go on for months, if not years, and the potential arisings from disposable ones could be significant. If just 10% of the UK population uses one disposable face mask each day, this could amount to an additional c.10,000tpa of waste, which is currently not readily recyclable, in addition to mounting Covid wastes from other sources (plastic aprons, gloves, etc). Laid end to end, these disposable masks could reach a staggering 10 times around the world. That’s each year! Clearly not all this will end up as litter, but the potential quantities requiring treatment and disposal are likely to be significant. And it is sad to say that my morning sighting of a single discarded face mask as litter on our streets is likely to increase before it gets better.

Should the government be encouraging reusable face coverings instead of disposable? To be clear, I’m not talking about use of disposable PPE in a hospital or medical setting; there are numerous justifications for using disposables. I’m also not making any judgements on the quality or efficacy of reusable vs disposable masks – I’ll leave that to the medical experts. But could (or should) something more be done to encourage re-usable face masks if they are deemed fit for purpose? After all, government messaging and intervention has had significant impacts on the plastic bag and cigarette litter of my youth….

Cherie Whiteman, Associate Director

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