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Face masks have become a normal part of life in the era of Covid-19, but not all designs are created equal.
Studies have found reusable cotton masks are effective at reducing virus transmission, but thousands of people across the country are still opting for disposable versions. The latter are largely made from plastic and can have a devastating impact on the environment, charities have warned.
The environmental not-for-profit City to Sea has urged the government to encourage teachers and pupils to use reusable masks, in light of the recent U-turn on face coverings in schools.
The latest advice states face coverings should be worn by secondary pupils and staff in local lockdown areas of England, while other areas will be at the discretion of secondary schools.
“The government has said reusable masks are safe to use, but this guidance needs to be effectively communicated with schools, staff and pupils otherwise we risk another wave of plastic pollution,” said City to Sea’s campaigns manager Steve Hynd.
“This is about making sure we keep ourselves and those around us safe but also that we also keep our planet safe from a growing problem of single-use plastics.”
Nina Schrank, campaigner at Greenpeace UK, added that before the pandemic, “the tide was slowly turning in the fight against plastic pollution”.
“The escalating use of throwaway plastics during the pandemic risks undermining that progress,” she told HuffPost UK. “A marine biologist found 171 plastic masks and gloves in just one hour in an estuary in Cornwall.”
The official government guidelines online state cotton coverings work – “a face covering should be made of a material that you find to be comfortable and breathable, such as cotton,” it states – but Schrank believes “they didn’t say this nearly loudly enough”.
“The government hasn’t yet communicated nationwide that, for general public use, throwaway plastic masks aren’t necessary or inherently safer,” she said.
“This has led to masses more plastic adding to the packaging clogging up our rivers and oceans. We’re already seeing direct impacts on wildlife, with a young seagull injured by a plastic mask wrapped around its legs in Essex and a peregrine falcon with a mask caught in its talons in Yorkshire.”