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Plastic Free July: Are surgical masks the new plastic straws?

Author: Rebecca Moseley (Socitm Advisory Consultant)

Socitm Advisory are dedicated to reducing their use of single-use plastic within our organisation and within our staff's personal lives. As part of showing our support for Plastic Free July, we have put together a series of blogs throughout the month giving tips and information on how to reduce your use of single-use plastic that we are following too.

Did you know – If every person in the UK used one single-use face mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste.

Following the easing of Lockdown restrictions masks are now required on all forms of public transport and many individuals are choosing to wear masks and gloves each time they leave their home. The demand for PPE throughout the pandemic has been just, however the increased demand of single-use disposable plastic masks and latex gloves has shown a rise in plastic pollution entering into the oceans and threatening the health of marine life.

Surgical masks are made of non-woven fabric, including plastics like polypropylene, and similarly to other plastic products if not correctly disposed of can take around 500 years to decompose. Officials have advised users against disposing of PPE in their household recycling due to the risk of contamination that potentially puts front line workers at risk. It is advised that these materials are disposed of in the general waste. This means that the surge in PPE that has followed the virus will most likely join the other 300 million tons of plastic waste which is produced annually -the majority of which is then sent to landfills.

So, what can we do to ensure we stay safe but also consciously protect our environment?

Professor and Director of the Marine Institute at the University if Plymouth, Richard Thompson suggested that although understandably sustainability practises are backtracked in a crisis it is important to not loose sight of the lifecycle of a product. Evidence suggests re-usable cloth masks offer the necessary protection required and are similar in performance to that of single-use plastic masks whilst avoiding unnecessary waste. This video from the New England Journal of Medicine highlights the effectiveness of masks in absorbing particles when talking and is also a friendly reminder to “STAY HEALTHY”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also stated that regular and efficient hand-washing is more protective against COVID-19 than wearing latex gloves as well also support the donning of cloth masks by the public.

So, let’s make our own Masks:

There are thousands of designs and many different styles to choose from when first looking to buy a reusable mask and opening up Etsy (or other sustainable purchasing app) can feel very overwhelming. However, making your own mask from items you already own can be an effective and cheap solution to this and designing and crafting your masks can make a lockdown evening slightly more bearable – or at least go quickly.

The BBC has put together some handy guides on how to make sustainable, plastic free masks from items you will already have around your home. Take a look and have a go at making your own face mask from one of their three designs here.

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