The government has been urged to do more to get people to switch from disposable masks to reusable coverings. The Liberal Democrats said single-use surgical masks caused “enormous” plastic waste and that environmentally friendly alternatives must be promoted. And the Green Party wants ministers to push the media to show them less, to stop their use becoming “normalised”. Disposable masks contain plastics which pollute water and can harm wildlife who eat them or become tangled in them. The UK government said it was investigating whether personal protective equipment (PPE) could be “reused in safe ways”.
The latest figures for Britain from the Office for National Statistics suggested 96% of adults who had left their homes in the past week had worn a face covering. The official guidance for England is to wear a reusable, washable one where possible. It also states that used disposable face coverings – often containing the plastic polypropylene – should be put in “black bag” waste bins “or a litter bin if you’re outside”. It adds that people should “not put them in a recycling bin as they cannot be recycled through conventional recycling facilities” and “take them home… if there is no litter bin – do not drop them as litter”.
But with the public being told to cover their faces, environmental groups say hundreds of thousands, even millions, of single-use masks are being dumped outdoors, blighting towns and the countryside. The RSPCA is encouraging people with disposable masks to “snip the straps” after use to prevent animals getting caught in them. The Liberal Democrats are calling on UK ministers to do more to “encourage people to use reusable masks, as well as provide guidance about how best to keep them clean”. A government spokesperson said: “Our priority is rightly to protect public health, but government and the NHS are actively looking at how PPE can be reused in safe ways, including decontamination.” They added: “We have published guidance on how to wear and make a cloth face covering and how to safely dispose of PPE.