The huge rise in use of disposable face masks around the world is bad news for the environment, but if you’ve seen disposable masks that claim to be ‘eco’ or recyclable, think twice.
Environmental groups have raised concerns about the impact that single-use face masks, which are made of plastic, is having on the environment.
UK government guidance encourages people to opt for washable and reusable face coverings, but World Health Organization (WHO) guidance suggests that some groups may wish to use medical masks in certain settings – and many people are choosing to do so.
This tidal wave of single-use plastic is an environmental nightmare in the making. According to University College London’s Plastics Innovation Hub, if just half of the UK’s population used one disposable mask per day for a year, that adds up to around 12 billion masks a year, creating more than 30,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste.
But could disposable masks be recycled? Some companies have created what they say are recyclable version, including Mask Bros EcoBreathe mask, which we saw advertised on Facebook.
Unfortunately, though, this claim is difficult to put into practice. Face masks can’t be recycled via normal channels. In fact, recycling companies have pleaded with people not to include them, as they can contaminate the rest of your recycling.
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‘Recyclable’ face masks are actually pretty hard to recycle
According to the Mask Bros website, the EcoBreathe mask is the ‘world’s first recyclable face mask’. Like regular surgical-style masks, it’s made from non-woven, high-density polypropylene.
But, Mask Bros says, ‘regular masks have a variety of different types of plastics for each layer as well as metal nose clips and elastic ear loops which mean that they can’t be recycled’. EcoBreathe masks are 100% polypropylene and don’t have those features.
So far, so promising. Mask Bros says that ‘local councils will accept EcoBreathe (plastic film recycling, grade 5) through its kerbside recycling programs’, but when we asked whether the company had engaged with councils on this (as previous research shows few accept niche products such as plastic coffee pods that require specialist attention), it said that it hadn’t.
The company said it has instead ‘spoken extensively to different recycling companies as well as WRAP [the Waste and Resources Action Programme] to confirm the information we are providing customers is accurate and won’t cause local recycling plants any problems’.
When we reached out to WRAP for comment, we got a different impression.
Helen Bird, WRAP plastics expert, said: ‘Disposable PPE, such as face masks, should never be placed with your household recycling. It should go straight into your “black bag” waste bin. Using a reusable mask, which can be popped in with your washing after each use, is safe and better for the planet.’
WRAP added that most councils do not collect flexible plastic of this type at kerbside.
Hackney council in London confirmed that these masks wouldn’t be recyclable: it said ‘we need to prevent the risk of infection of staff working to process, and collect, them in recycling. It would not be possible to easily determine a recyclable mask from a non-recyclable mask at the recycling facility.’
Libby Peake, head of resource policy at the Green Alliance, told us: ‘There’s a real difference between something that’s ‘recyclable’ and something that’s actually “recycled”.
‘Many common plastics, for instance, are theoretically recyclable, but they won’t be recycled unless the right collection and treatment systems are in place to handle them, and that’s not the case with PPE.’
She added that she had ‘certainly not heard of any councils collecting used PPE for recycling’.
And that’s before you get to the contamination issue that crops up with face masks. They are classed as infectious waste, which councils don’t accept.
Mask Bros told us that a 72-hour quarantine of its masks would resolve this. But this stipulation doesn’t appear on its website.
WRAP was also skeptical on this point. It highlighted government advice, which is clear: face masks should go in black bag waste. If you’re self isolating, they should be quarantined for 72 hours and then go in black bag waste.
Mask Bros also claims on its website that ‘reusable masks … become and remain contaminated, often transforming into vehicles for viral transmission themselves’. This is unnecessary scaremongering. If washed and used properly, this is not an issue with reusable face coverings and could equally apply to disposable masks if improperly used.
Specialist recycling services exist, but they’re hard to come by
So if you can’t recycle masks the normal way, what can you do?
Mask Bros does offer an alternative, similar to the system used by coffee pod brands. It says that you can send used masks back for processing and recycling at one of its recycling partners using a pre-paid envelope.
At the moment, this is the only really viable option.
TerraCycle’s Zero Waste boxes for PPE
There is hope that solutions for recycling PPE will improve. TerraCycle, a specialist waste company that runs programs to collect and recycle hard-to-process items such as toothpaste tubes, has introduced a Zero Waste Box for PPE.
It says that the boxes could be placed in public spaces such as shops to encourage people to responsibly dispose of face masks. They’re aimed at commercial use, though, rather than households and they don’t come cheap. A small box costs about £127 and a large one is £243.
When full, the PPE waste is aggregated, cleaned and melted into pellets. The pellets can then be used to manufacture a variety of new products including outdoor furniture, shipping pallets and bins.
There are limits, though. The boxes are only for disposable surgical-type masks and can’t accept masks which come from a medical environment.
Which? verdict on ‘eco’ disposable masks
It’s laudable that companies are working on more eco-friendly solutions to the current disposable mask problem, but they need to be responsible about how they market ‘eco’ products and crystal clear about the recycling process to avoid exacerbating the problem.
There is research going on into alternative biodegradable options, such as masks made from bioplastics or wood pulp, but we’re not there yet.
Because of the cost and admin involved in accessing specialist recycling schemes for disposable masks, and the impact of plastic production in the first place, we think that the most environmentally friendly option right now is to opt for reusable cloth masks where possible.