A waterways charity has issued concerns that personal protective equipment (PPE) is rapidly becoming a new litter scourge during the coronavirus pande
A waterways charity has issued concerns that personal protective equipment (PPE) is rapidly becoming a new litter scourge during the coronavirus pandemic.
The huge increase in the use of single-use plastic gloves and masks being used by non-healthcare professionals will negatively impact the environment, Thames21 says.
The public health crisis has already meant dropped and discarded face masks have already become a common sight on pavements throughout the country.
But these widely-available masks feature a layer of non-woven bonded fabric to filter microorganisms from the mouth and nose – commonly made of polypropylene.
Although they keep out pathogens effectively, single-use masks have a long afterlife after they are discarded, ending up in landfill or oceans.
Plastic waste dropped on the street can get washed into drains and enter local rivers, contaminating water with the pathogen.
And apart from the potential risk of spreading disease, experts warn they can pose a choking hazard to wildlife.
A switch to compulsory mask-wearing in the UK throughout the rest of the pandemic, as considered by the government, could exacerbate the problem.
Plastic waste dropped on the street can get washed into drains and enter the local river, contaminating water with pathogens
In London, much of the plastic waste ends up in the Thames, is carried downstream and then washes up on strandlines at high tide.
Key saltmarsh areas accumulate the plastic due to their location and ecology, with reedbeds helping to trap the waste.
‘These areas are key green spaces for Londoners and important nursery grounds for fish and birds,’ said Chris Coode, deputy CEO of waterways charity Thames21.
‘There is now so much plastic in these saltmarsh habitats that you can hear the plastic crunch underfoot as you walk along.’
The massive increase in single-use plastic gloves and masks being used by non-healthcare professionals will negatively impact the environment, especially when these items are dumped in the environment rather than in bins, Thames21 says
It’s been mandatory to wear face masks on public transport in Britain since last month and from this Friday people in Scotland will also have to wear masks when they enter shops.
The government is also still considering extending mandatory face covers to anyone who is out in public, even if they’re just walking the streets.
But should the wearing of face masks become mandatory everywhere, the public should wear reusable masks rather than single-use masks, due to environmental implications such as low biodegradability, scientists at University College London say.
Used PPE such as face masks can pose a risk to wildlife if not disposed of properly. But even if disposed of in household waste, the used masks could potentially by sources of infection for rubbish workers
The university estimates that if every person in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, we would create 66,000 tons of contaminated plastic waste.
UCL has already released a policy document that sets out the environmental implications of single-use face masks.
In comparison, evidence suggests that reusable masks, such as those made of fabric, perform most of the tasks of single-use masks without the associated waste stream.
Most face masks available for sale are made from layers of plastics and are designed to be single-use
Reusable masks present a great eco-friendly alternative as long as they are washed after each use, the university stresses.
Some manufacturers of reusable masks, such as Cambridge Mask and Respro, claim that their products are as effective as standard single-use masks if used correctly.
Cambridge Mask produces respirators made with UK military-grade filtration technology and claims their masks are effective for 340 hours.
Should wearing face masks become mandatory for the public, an extensive public health campaign with clear instructions about how to wear, remove, and wash reusable masks will be needed, UCL scientists said.
It also outlined one of the main problems of single-use masks and other PPE, aside from the environmental issues.
In a hospital environment, single-use protective wear are contaminated items and there are systems in place for their safe disposal, including incineration.
But waste PPE in the household is commonly placed in mixed general waste, which may put waste collectors at risk of contracting infections.
Local councils could install special disposal units for contaminated masks in every street, as well as make hand sanitisers readily available, such as in public spaces and on transport network, UCL suggests.
Woman making homemade face mask with a sewing machine in her home while in quarantine. Evidence shows that cloth masks, particularly those with several layers of cotton cloth, block droplets from the wearer’s mouth and nose from entering the atmosphere
The UK government appears to be yielding to pressure to bring more thorough mandatory guidelines for the wearing of face masks.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed this week that the government will look again at whether people in England should wear face coverings or masks while out in public.
Speaking in the House of Commons, the Health Secretary replied ‘yes’ when asked whether officials would reconsider the existing advice in England.
Current rules say people must wear a covering over their nose and mouth when they are on public transport – but they aren’t mandatory anywhere else.
The president of the Royal Society said this week that everyone should wear a face covering in public to reduce the risk of a second wave of Covid-19 infections.
Professor Venki Ramakrishnan said people should wear a mask when they leave home – particularly in enclosed indoor spaces – but acknowledged that the public remain ‘sceptical’ about the benefits.
Not wearing them outside the home should be considered as ‘anti-social’ as drink-driving, or failing to wear a seat belt, he said this week.
‘The virus has not been eliminated, so, as we lift lockdown and people increasingly interact with each other, we need to use every tool we have to reduce the risk of a second wave of infection,’ said Professor Ramakrishnan.
The UK government has instructions on its website on how people can make their own face mask from leftover clothing.