Illustration: @eviegraceillustration on instagram, website: https://www.eviegraceillustration.com/
“It is estimated that between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean globally every year” (gov.uk). Following the start of the Coronavirus pandemic it is estimated that 194 million disposable masks and gloves are now being used across the world every month. Most single use PPE is made of a range of plastics that are not recyclable even when disposed of properly as they are considered medical waste. When they find their way into the ocean bright colours of single use equipment like gloves can be mistaken by sea life as food, putting them at an increased risk of severe injury and death.
The following heartbreaking images from Hong Kong beaches are supplied by OceansAsia, a conservation group, pictured in the first image is Gary Stokes a co-founder of the organisation.
Since the introduction of a single use plastic bag charge in 2018 and recent ban on supplying plastic straws in the UK I thought we were on the road, albeit slow, to shifting away from disposable plastic and this pandemic seems to have put us back to square one. Increases have been seen in ocean pollution of single use masks and gloves. Divers have found among the usual mix of litter including disposable cups and cans, “dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitiser beneath the waves of the Mediterranean” (Guardian). The figures surrounding plastic pollution in oceans is shocking and ever increasing as countries opt for more single use PPE.
Sky News reported on 30th October that there can be a big difference in the effectiveness of reusable face masks. Don’t let this put you off if you are in a non-medical setting, are not high risk or for another reason you must wear a single use mask. They reference a Which? investigation which found 3 of 15 reusable masks tested were not suitable “to filter potentially harmful particles”. However some passed with flying colours including NEQI which was awarded ‘best buy’ status! More on the findings of this lab test can be found here https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-three-face-masks-sold-by-major-retailers-rated-a-dont-buy-by-which-12118156 . There are also many sites and companies who offer advice on how to make your own reusable face masks, the well known non-governmental environmental global organisation greenpeace provide a fully comprehensive article on tips for making your own here https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/how-to-make-a-reusable-facemask-and-why-you-should/ .
A typical single use mask has a lifespan of 450 years and more needs to be done by governments to push the use of reusable masks where possible. But also for them to invest more money in research for reusable masks, so they can be implemented throughout society and preferred over single use in circumstances where they currently have to use single use items. Some people in high risk categories or for other reasons have to wear a single use plastic mask, those who do not should be trying to wear reusable face masks where possible to reduce the amount of waste and plastic pollution, to be considerate to both human lives but also the environment.
On the 23rd March the day the UK went into lockdown Maria Algarra started a social media hashtag called #TheGloveChallenge as a way of publicising the increased environmental pollution of coronavirus related PPE (try searching the hashtag on instagram). Reminding us we must not forget in a time of human crisis that we are also in a climate crisis (which is also threatening our existence).
There are a numerous amount of ways we as individuals can reduce waste and introduce more environmentally friendly practises in ways that fit into individual budgets. For some of those please find some recommendations from a fellow House21 blogger here https://www.house21.co.uk/news-opinions/daily-ways-to-reduce-plastic-use/ .
However we must acknowledge that most damage is caused by large companies and governments who must introduce more legislation and laws to combat plastic waste and other challenges that impact the current climate emergency. Please find here some great organisations to support that strive for systemic changes for a more environmentally conscious world.