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Reusable mask worn by a woman in Newcastle

Reusable masks for public would avoid vast environmental impact

Image credit: REUTERS/Lee Smith

The wearing of reusable masks by the public could avoid 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste being generated in a year, according to a new report.

The UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub has released a policy document which details the potential environmental and climate implications of the government requiring members of the public to wear single-use face masks as a precautionary measure against the novel coronavirus.

Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) does not currently recommend the wearing of masks by general populations, a growing number of governments are calling on their citizens to wear masks when they go outdoors. In the UK - where most citizens are not wearing masks – discussions are brewing about whether mandatory face masks could play a part in easing lockdown restrictions, alongside contact tracing; mass testing; enhanced hygiene, and social distancing.

This could involve either medical-grade, single-use masks made from layers of plastic or non-medical, reusable masks fashioned from scarves, t-shirts, towels and tightly-woven fabrics such as quilting cotton. Although these makeshift masks are unsuitable for healthcare workers, research appears to suggest that they are moderately effective in preventing the wearer transmitting Covid-19 to other people by reducing the range and volume of exhaled water droplets containing the virus.

“Evidence suggests that reusable masks perform most of the tasks of single-use masks without the associated waste stream,” the UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub wrote.

According to the researchers, if every person in the UK wore a single-use face mask every day for a year, this would create tens of thousands of tonnes of contaminated plastic waste and a climate impact ten times higher than if reusable masks were recommended instead.

“If the government decides to require the wearing of face masks in public, it should mandate reusable masks and not single-use masks,” the report says. “This will preserve single-use mask supplies for frontline healthcare workers and reduce the risks associated with the disposal of 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic mask waste in the household waste stream.

“Additionally, the use of reusable masks by the general population would significantly reduce plastic waste and the climate change impact of this policy measure.”

The group points out that in a hospital environment, disposable PPE is considered “contaminated” with systems in place for safe disposal involving incineration. No such safe disposal system exists for the general public.

The report recommends a public health campaign which provides clear instructions (e.g. online video tutorials) about how to wear, remove and disinfect reusable masks. The campaign should make it clear that reusable masks do not put people at risk and attempt to normalise wearing them to “minimise social awkwardness”, the report advised.

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