Litter pickers across the UK are reporting a huge increase in the number of dumped contaminated disposable face masks being spotted during their patrols, as the number of single use masks used in the UK during 2021 is feared to reach 19.5 billion.
“The scale of the problem of carelessly dumped disposable face masks is massive – we use 52 million single use plastic masks a day and sadly some of these are being dropped, or simply fall from people’s pockets – sightings are increasingly common now”, explains Charlotte Green of UK waste company TradeWaste.co.uk
The number of disposable face masks that will be used across the UK in 2021 has been calculated at 19.5 billion. A proportion of these are discarded either carelessly or accidentally, meaning many end up being blown into woods making their journey into streams, rivers and eventually the sea.
The problem of how to dispose of masks is tricky, with no easy way to recycle and conflicting ways to handle potentially contaminated masks – the real problem is the littering caused by careless users.
Litter pickers across the country are reporting an increasing number of masks being collected during their rounds. In Fife, the Street Champions group reported finding 1 mask for every 60m they patrolled near a shopping area in Rosyth – they have collected a total of 3,500 since March. This is common across the whole of the UK.
Max Ratcliffe, aged 6, from Menston in West Yorkshire took part in a home-schooling project to examine litter and its effect on the environment in his local wood. He was shocked by how many masks he spotted, with 1 dumped mask found every 50m on a path popular with dog walkers. “I think it’s really bad. People should put them in the bin. Animals might eat them, and they might die”, reported Max.
Used masks are not only a littering issue, but also a health and safety one:
“Used masks are tricky and you should not touch a used mask – they should be treated like any other potentially contaminated material and only handled professionally using the right protecting equipment”, explains Charlotte Green, “there are obvious risks associated with coming into contact with a used mask”.
“The way to tackle this potential environmental disaster is for everyone to move towards washable reusable masks, not only will this cut down on single use mask litter, but it also reduces the environmental impacts of manufacturing 19.5 billion plastic masks in the first place. As a country we have worked so hard to reduce plastic consumption, yet we are sleepwalking into another nightmare”, concludes Charlotte Green of TradeWaste.co.uk