Our year started with a reminder that the climate crisis is plain to see. Australian bush fires turned the sky red, and it wasn’t long before the same was happening in California. But from March, the limelight was squared firmly on the pandemic, and for many of us, there just wasn’t enough bandwidth in our minds to worry about the environment and public health equally – even if one likely caused the other. The hospital figures tallying ever upwards on our screens each day were a much more tangible threat to our sense of peace.

Now that we have gone through lockdown after semi-lockdown, we’ve allowed other parts of our lives to creep back into our consciousness, and it’s past time to focus on the planet once again. The disposable face masks and other PPE littering our streets is an important reminder that we are still overwhelmingly piling our waste into landfill. In the UK, a large proportion of what the recycling truck picks up never gets recycled. Either because of poor sorting, or exporting it to countries with lower standards. 

Disposable face masks themselves are made from layers of plastic fibres and, according to UCL’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, if everyone in the UK uses one single-use face covering each day for a year, it will create 66,000 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic waste. Much of which would end up in our oceans and rivers.

So, what can we do? 

As individuals we can’t take all of the burden solely on our shoulders. We live in a problematic system with plenty of inefficiencies and institutional interests. But we can still make a difference, and reusing our products is one way of doing it.

How to reuse safely

It’s tempting to simply throw your disposable mask in the washing machine each day for weeks until it falls apart. However, this could degrade the filtering system so much that it becomes pretty much useless.

Which is why brands have cottoned onto the need for high-quality, eco-friendly, reusable masks – such as Smartcover, who sell professionally made face coverings that adhere to European standards but are intended for everyday use by ordinary people. These kinds of masks are made to be washed and reused on a daily basis, and have a less “surgical” look, for civilians like you and me. And – most importantly – they last.

Make your own

One way to avoid waste is to make your own mask. If you’ve got the skills and the time, you can make homemade cloth masks for you and your friends with your choice of fabric with funky patterns, so you can go out looking unique. Just remember that homemade will never be as safe as pro-made masks. They do a good job of protecting others from your sneezes, coughs and wheezes; but they don’t filter incoming particles like medical-grade products do. Plus, they are not made with antibacterial material, so need to be washed often, and you must avoid touching them with your hands.

Every little helps

So, if we are going to protect the planet while we protect ourselves, we need to look at the “three Rs” – reduce, reuse, recycle. If the material that disposable masks are being made from is non-recyclable and public health depends on us not reducing our use of face coverings, then we need to look at reusing what we have. Our advice? Get yourself two or three reusable masks, rotate them throughout the week, and you will protect yourself, your community and your environment in one fell swoop.