The Student
Features
The environmental impact of disposable face masks
by Emma Conn, 14/10/20

It is a clear, warm day in Edinburgh almost one year ago and people are taking to the streets to march for better legislation around climate change. Greta Thunberg’s movement has taken the world by storm and the international conversation is centred on sustainability and protecting our environment.

Today, a year later, much has changed. Now, when we are not taking to the streets to fight racism and police violence, we are inside trying to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the virus that is quickly regaining its foothold in Edinburgh.

Covid-19 is always on the mind and on the nation’s tongue, making climate change a tragic afterthought. However, according to many environmentalist organisations, the coronavirus and environmental protection go hand in hand.

Operation Mer Propre, a French non-profit dedicated to picking up rubbish along the French Riviera, reports a large amount of “Covid-waste” – masks, gloves, and sanitiser bottles – being spotted in the river. Joffrey Peltier, a member of the organisation, said that the employment of single-use plastics to fight the coronavirus was “a promise of pollution to come”. This is especially true for disposable masks, which have become mandatory in shops in Edinburgh and in many other cities across the world.

In France alone, the government has ordered over two billion disposable masks from China, which, according to Operation Mer Propre, runs the risk of “having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean”.

In the UK, both the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have voiced concerns about the use of disposable PPE, which contain plastics that take over 450 years to degrade, and are asking the government to encourage the public to use reusable masks. Angela Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, said that the use of disposable PPE was particularly concerning as it has come at a time in which we are “clearly drowning in plastic”.

Covid-waste is also beginning to affect local animals.One photo from Sue Schwar of the South Essex Wildlife Hospital depicts a seagull with a disposable mask binding its legs together.

Laura Foster of the Marine Conservation Society, raised concerns about such events: “When they’re whole, wildlife’s going to get tangled in it or the plastic’s going to be ingested.” The RSPCA has responded by encouraging people to “snip the straps” of face masks to prevent wildlife from being tangled in it.

In light of the clear ecological damage that Covid-waste is having on our ecosystems, it is difficult to deny that we are still facing the same problems that we were last year, but this time with a much quieter international conversation about them. So, what do we do? How do we continue to be socially responsible on both an environmental and public health front?

Washable and reusable PPE is, of course, a start, but it seems that the answer to this question lies in the way in which we adapt to our ever-changing world.

The world seems to be a very different place then it was last year, but the ways in which we look at it should not change. If we view every world problem through the lens of sustainability and environmental conservation, we can find solutions that reduce the human impact on the environment. Now, our solution is cloth masks and frequent handwashing in place of gloves. Tomorrow, it may be increased composting or renewable energy or another environmentally conscious activity. Whatever it may be, we must be ready, open, and willing to adopt it.

Many of us wish that the world could go back to the way it was last year, ten years, even twenty years ago, but that just will not happen. We cannot be bogged down by nostalgia, and instead must look for ways to create a sustainable future regardless of what the world may throw at us.

Image: Pikist