Before the pandemic, it felt like a movement was brewing, as more people turned their backs on plastic and prioritised the future of the planet. But when Covid hit, we didn’t always have the luxury of shunning single-use products.
Health took precedence as millions of people wore disposable face masks for personal safety. And after a few hours of use, they’d be discarded in bins – or on the streets. In fact, you probably saw them littering gutters and waterways, wreaking havoc on local wildlife. Even the nation’s pets were impacted, as My Family Vets saw a rise in face mask ingestion cases in dogs.
Disposable face masks are made from polypropylene fabric, a type of plastic. According to action group Waste Free Oceans, they can take 450 years to decompose in nature. Roughly 8m tonnes of general plastic waste ended up in the world’s oceans every year, before Covid. But the emergence of Covid will only increase those figures if PPE litter continues to rise.
One year in, some good news is finally emerging. While such masks have been considered non-recyclable, there are companies now finding ways to repurpose all of this waste.
So, where can you recycle your mask?
Wilko has become the first major business in the UK to offer customers the chance to recycle their disposable masks with drop-off points dotted around 150 stores nationwide. The pilot scheme will run for three months from April 1.
Once full, collection bins are taken away by recycling specialists ReWorked, where – after a 72-hour quarantine period – masks are washed and shredded down into raw materials, which can be refashioned into products ranging from other safety materials for businesses, to building materials and furniture.
The hope is that this recycling scheme will provide an easy way for people to safely dispose of used PPE while enabling them to do their bit for the planet.
The scheme is the latest in an ongoing series of measures implemented to make a positive difference to the environment. Wilko has pledged to reach Net Zero Carbon by 2040 and has joined The UK Plastics Pact, which focuses solely on reducing the use of single use plastic.
Natalie Fée, the CEO and founder of environmental group City to Sea, welcomed the scheme but pointed out this isn’t a “silver bullet”. “It’s really just a drop in a very plastic polluted ocean,” she said. “We are being flooded with single-use plastics and the only way to stop this flood is by turning off the taps.”
She urged people to wear reusable masks instead, where appropriate. “We are being asked to wear face coverings at the moment to keep everyone around us safe. If you have a single-use mask already I encourage you to use it and then recycle it, but if you are considering buying a mask, I urge you to buy a few reusable masks that you can use time and time again.”
Experts agree medical-grade masks are better than reusable cloth masks – and studies back that up. In the UK, cloth masks don’t have to adhere to any safety standards so they vary massively in how protective they are.
Other companies in the UK that are providing disposable mask recycling points for staff and corporate customers include Pennells garden centres, Health Vet Clinic, Unilever, BMW and The Cotswolds Company. Businesses can join the scheme and sign up for PPE recycling points here via Reworked.
TerraCycle also offers a mask recycling service. Businesses or individuals can buy a Zero Waste Box, fill it with disposable masks and PPE, and then send it back to the company (postage is pre-paid) where the contents will then be recycled.
Around the world, researchers are finding new and innovative ways to repurpose masks. At RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, they’ve discovered disposable face masks can be recycled to make roads.
A study found that using the recycled face mask material to make just one kilometre of a two-lane road would use around three million masks, preventing 93 tonnes of waste from going to landfill.