Single use masks are now a bigger polluter than single use plastic, campaigners warn

Buy a damn reusable mask!

A marine biologist and leading environmentalist campaigner has just warned that single-use face masks are becoming a leading source of sea pollution, more so than plastic bags and straws.

23-year-old Emily Stevenson, also known as the Beach Guardian, found 171 items of PPE (single-use face masks, gloves) in just one hour when litter picking in a Cornish estuary this week.

And there’s more below the surface. Literally. “We’ve already found evidence of PPE actually sinking below the ocean surface,” Stevenson said.

“This means that there could be a totally unaccounted for concentration of PPE pollution on the seafloor, which can remain as dormant debris for centuries. Once on the seafloor, it smothers any biological structures such as important Sea Fan beds in the UK, or coral reefs further afield.”

Emily and her father Rob co-founded The Beach Guardian project in 2017, when she was just 20 years old. Since then, they’ve organised over 200 community litter-picks and brought together over 6,000 volunteers, collecting literal tonnes of single use plastic from our seas.

But Emily said the nature of this litter has changed. She has watched as the rubbish moved away from carrier bags and straws, become increasingly populated by single-use face masks and gloves.

“This week, we went for a #PaddleForPPE along the Camel Estuary, which flows directly into the Atlantic Ocean. Within the first five minutes, we found a face mask in the water.

“This has been the first time I have been legitimately frightened by PPE pollution. To see it in the water, in the environment that holds my heart and my passion. To see it at home, on my doorstep. It hit me very hard.”

But Emily is hopeful. “The saving grace of COVID-19 has been our unity,” she said. “The whole world has faced the virus together. If we continue with the same global collaboration, we can resolve this. PPE is in all of our lives; we use it or see it every day. But it is for this very reason that we can all do something about it.

“It is those daily, individual, small steps that happen on a global scale that is going to be our greatest ally in this fight against plastic.”

Emily went on to say that research shows if every person in the UK wore a single-use face mask every day for a year, it would create an extra 57,000 tonnes of hard-to-recycle plastic and an extra 66,000 tonnes of contaminated PPE waste.

To combat this, it is advised to purchase reusable face masks and PPE. However, the reusable masks sold by most major retailers do not constitute official PPE. Companies such as ASOS have had to issue warnings alongside each mask listing to advise that their masks are not medical devices or official PPE. But then, neither are the popular single-use surgical masks (pictured above, on right). And at least the reusable ones aren’t ending up at the bottom of the ocean.

You can buy reusable masks from most major UK retailers. Pictures: SWNS and ASOS.

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