A new campaign to encourage the nation to switch to reusable facemasks has been launched today, as research for North London Waste Authority (NLWA) reveals that 102 million single-use facemasks are being disposed of each week in the UK. These masks end up being thrown away or littered, creating a huge new plastic pollution problem.
The poll also found that nearly one in five people (18%) think that disposable masks should go in the recycling bin, which is resulting in increased contamination issues at recycling facilities.
Facemask littering has also become a common sight during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 45% of those surveyed feeling angry when they see masks littered on the ground or in waterways.
And many go uncollected, with 15% saying they sometimes would pick up other people’s litter but are not doing so during the pandemic in case of contamination.
With 70% of those who wear disposable facemasks not realising that they are a single-use plastic, NLWA is today launching a campaign to encourage people across the UK to switch to reusables – and to help those who can least afford them in north London access a free reusable mask.
Chair of North London Waste Authority, Cllr Clyde Loakes, said: “The progress we’ve all made in reducing our reliance on single-use plastics is at risk of being undone during the pandemic, and disposable facemasks are a major culprit.
“They are not made of paper, they are not recyclable and whether they are binned or littered they will damage the environment.
“Today we are urging people to keep doing their bit to help tackle the climate emergency by switching to reusable masks, which offer just as much protection as disposables.”
Steve Oulds, National Commercial Manager at Biffa Waste Services Ltd, a Materials Recovery Facility, said: “Contamination is one of the biggest challenges we face, and we are now seeing many disposable facemasks coming through our facility every day.
“Where facemasks are found in the load, it can result in the entire load being rejected and losing otherwise perfectly good recyclables.
“Masks that make it into the facility have to be pulled off conveyor belts by hand, which puts the health of our operatives at risk. We are also dealing with more tissues and wipes than normal – and even get Covid-19 test kits.
“None of these items are recyclable and they should go in the general waste bin.”
It’s not just facemasks that are fuelling the single-use plastic problem. 16% of respondents say their use of other single-use plastics has gone up during the pandemic.
Delivery packaging was the top item to have increased in use (15%), followed by takeaway packaging (12%) and supermarket food packaging (12%).
When asked about plastic in the context of Covid-19, more than one in five (21%) say they are concerned about plastic pollution but right now health is more important so they are happy to use more single-use plastic for now.
16% think it’s safer to buy food such as fruit/veg in plastic packaging than loose as it’s protected and 28% say they are concerned about plastic pollution and trying to use less single-use plastic but it’s harder to cut down during the pandemic.
Dr Jennifer Cole of Royal Holloway University of London and Northern European Hub Coordinator of the Planetary Health Alliance said: “It’s vital that we don’t let the pandemic push back very real gains we have made in reducing single use plastics. If you can’t find a coffee shop that will refill your reusable cup, take a flask instead.
“Buy from a stall that wraps your roll in cardboard rather than polystyrene, wash loose vegetables rather than expecting them to be wrapped in plastic, and start to see face coverings as a fashion accessory – choose three or four cloths ones that can be washed with your laundry and coordinate with your outfits.
“There is no excuse for slipping back into using throwaway cups or relying on throwaway masks when reusable alternatives are available”.
NLWA is working with not-for-profit social enterprise Fashion Enter to create 1,400 reusable facemasks to be distributed in the run up to Christmas via food banks and other support services across north London.
To find out more about the facemask project and learn how to make your own reusable mask, click here.