How sustainable are your face mask habits?

Thursday 16th September, 2021

Wearing a face mask has become a daily reality for people across the UK and worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the rules around face masks have been relaxed since the outbreak was at its worst, a huge number of people still rely on them as an essential precaution, and it’s clear they have played a major role in helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other communicable diseases.

However, for as much good as these masks have undoubtedly done in protecting public health, it’s important that this does not come at the expense of the environment. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that improper disposal of single-use face masks is creating a significant pollution problem - one with the potential to linger long past the end of the pandemic.

The fresh threat that this sudden influx of face masks poses to the environment underlines the importance of the New World, New Habits theme of this year’s Unblocktober. If face coverings are going to remain part of our daily lives, then it is important that we make sure to adopt sustainable habits so that disposal of masks does not have a harmful impact on our sewers and seas.

The environmental impact of face masks

Face masks are not a new innovation, but there is no denying that their usage has skyrocketed around the world ever since global health authorities started recommending face coverings as a way of stopping the spread of COVID-19.

According to a 2021 study spearheaded by the University of Southern Denmark, around 129 billion face masks were being used globally every month at the height of the pandemic, equivalent to more than three million every minute. This is good news in terms of preventing COVID-19 - but potentially bad news from an environmental perspective.

The university’s research, as well as another study from Swansea University, has shown that the disposable single-use surgical-style face masks that have become so common are highly damaging to the environment if improperly discarded. Like so many of the household products that form the focus of our Unblocktober campaign, face masks contain large amounts of hidden plastic - microsized plastic fibres that form part of the masks’ filtering system.

Frequently, used masks are being left on the ground or thrown into rivers and seas, where they break down and release these small plastic particles - as well as toxic traces of lead, antimony, cadmium, bisphenol A and other substances - into the local ecosystem. This will have a serious negative effect on plants, wildlife and water quality.

Additionally, many people are flushing their masks down the toilet, perhaps unaware of the fact that these coverings are not biodegradable and will not break down in a safe way. This means they will end up clogging the sewers, contributing to fatbergs and other blockages, and increase the risk of flooding and pollution.

In a recent survey carried out by Lanes Group plc, almost 10% of those polled reported having experienced issues with their local drains and sewers during the pandemic - and we’re keen to ensure that this figure does not rise.

How to properly dispose of face masks

Most of us are still regularly using face coverings to some extent or another, so it’s essential to make sure we all understand how to properly dispose of them in order to avoid adding to this environmental damage.

The official government guidelines on face mask disposal provide the following instructions:

  • Dispose of face masks in your regular black bag waste bin when at home or at work, or a public litter bin if you are outside
  • DO NOT put face masks into your recycling bin, as they cannot be recycled through conventional recycling facilities
  • If you are out in public and there is no litter bin available, take them home to dispose of them - DO NOT drop them as litter!
  • If you are currently self-isolating, masks must be double-bagged and stored for 72 hours before putting them into a black bag waste bin

These same rules also apply to rubber gloves and any other protective equipment you might be using during the pandemic. By sticking to these rules and making sure you are always being responsible when throwing away your disposable masks, you can help ensure that your virus prevention precautions do not come at the expense of environmental protection.

A more sustainable path forwards?

Many health experts expect that face coverings will remain necessary or useful for some time to come as the fight against COVID-19 continues, so efforts are being made by researchers to find more sustainable options than the disposable single-use products that are so commonplace today.

Some recommend wider use of the more robust N95-style masks, which can be used for longer and do not need to be disposed of as regularly, while efforts are also being made to develop new biodegradable models that offer the same convenience as current masks, but without the environmental impact.

In the meantime, members of the public are being encouraged to consider cloth face coverings where appropriate, as these still offer good protection in most cases, and have the significant benefit of being washable and reusable, without creating any chemical or plastic waste.

This also underlines the importance of educating yourself about the wider risks and dangers posed by hidden plastics, and to learn which everyday household products might contain plastic fibres before disposing of them. In addition to face masks, the following products all contain plastic traces:

  • Wet wipes - this even includes wipes that are labelled as “flushable”
  • Tampons, applicators and wrappers
  • Sanitary/menstrual pads and towels
  • Nappies
  • Condoms
  • Cotton buds
  • Contact lenses
  • Bandages and plasters
  • Razor blades
  • Dental floss

Getting involved in Unblocktober is a great way to establish good habits when it comes to proper disposal of masks and other items that may contain hidden plastics. By making a pledge to avoid putting any of the above items down the drain for 30 days, you’ll be forming positive new habits that will make a real difference in the fight against fatbergs and plastic pollution.

Head over to the Unblocktober homepage to find out more, including information on how to get signed up to take part in this year’s challenge. By doing so, you’ll be taking an important step in keeping the environment safe, both during the pandemic and beyond!