Plastic Free Chesterfield’s concerns over littering of single-use disposable protection

Plastic Free Chesterfield have just celebrated their first anniversary as a group, working together in the community to take action on single-use plastics, however the global coronavirus pandemic, has added to concerns around a furthering to the plastic pollution problem – the littering of personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Plastic Free Chesterfield Community Lead, Greg Hewitt, said: “Whilst Plastic Free Chesterfield completely supports the need for equipment such as face coverings to keep us safe during these testing times, we, along with many other NGO’s and governments, are concerned about how these single-use face coverings and gloves are being disposed of – and what this means for our planet.”

It’s estimated that over a billion pieces of PPE have been distributed in the UK during the pandemic, and experts think this isn’t even close to being enough [1]. And a study by the Polytechnic of Turin, believes another 1 billion masks and half a billion gloves per month will be needed [2].

Greg continued, “If just 1% of the masks and face coverings used are disposed of incorrectly and end up in the natural environment, this would result in as many as 10 million masks / face coverings a month polluting our precious oceans[2]. That’s a shocking amount of pollution in addition to the 12 million tonnes of plastic that enters our oceans every year”[3]. 

The founder of the French Environmental Organisation, Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) Laurent Lombard, has warned that there could soon be “more masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean”[4]. 

Regarding face masks, medical-grade masks are commonly made from polypropylene, a very dense thermoplastic, which is non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, taking around 500 years to degrade. According to an analysis by scientists at University College London [5], if every person in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, a whopping extra 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste would be created – weighing the equivalent of ten elephants!

Greg continued: “We want to make it clear that the Government has said that reusable face coverings are safe to use [6], as long as they are washed after each use.”

And on the issue of gloves, Plastic Free Chesterfield state that while latex gloves are incredibly important in clinical settings, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that regular hand washing is actually the best approach to take as gloves’ surface can get contaminated, just like bare hands can, and if you then touch your face you can get infected [7].

In terms of advice, Plastic Free Chesterfield recommend:

  • Buy or, even better make, a reusable face covering. The best materials to use are tightly woven cotton or twill, natural silk or quilted cotton material Just choose your item to repurpose and get creative with a needle and thread – or sewing machine! 
  • Always wash reusable face coverings after use following advice from the USA’s CDC [8] 
  • Follow the best and latest government advice about PPE like gloves

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52362707
[2] https://www.theweek.in/news/health/2020/05/18/Plastic-pollution-to-worsen-due-to-COVID-19-masks.html
[3] https://www.greenpeace.org/new-zealand/story/how-does-plastic-end-up-in-the-ocean
[4] https://www.euronews.com/2020/06/08/coronavirus-pollution-plastic-masks-and-gloves-are-already-littering-the-seabed-campaigner
[5] https://www.plasticwastehub.org.uk/news/the-environmental-dangers-of-employing-single-use-face-masks-as-part-of-a-covid-19-exit-strategy
[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/staying-safe-outside-your-home/staying-safe-outside-your-home#face-coverings
[7[ https://www.facebook.com/WHO/photos/a.750907108288008/2988788904499806/?type=3&theater
[8] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-wash-cloth-face-coverings.html

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