Disposable vs Reusable

September 28, 2020

Twelve months ago if you told me I would be sitting writing an article on the potential damage that face masks could do to the environment, I would have had a couple of questions. Uncertainty remains on how long this unprecedented time will last, but the regulation on face masks and social distances looks set in place for the foreseeable future.

I now look at old photos and watch TV from ‘Pre-Covid’ and a neuron fires somewhere in the cerebellum that tells me something is off. A sudden alarm when Noel Feilding hugs the bread weeks star baker in last year’s series or Kevin McCloud’s handshake as he visits the incredibly airy living space in the converted 2012 castle of the now divorced and broke man.

I am no social scientist but it is of my best intuitions that this knee jerk reaction means there is a deep rooted nature in this change. Or maybe it’s just me. Mad. Alone.

Disposable masks are not yet recyclable through current methods and with the surge in demand continuing the question is how bad could this be for the environment? A recent study at UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub on a scenario based forecast for the environmental impacts of different face masks has been released, with guidance being presented on preferable outcomes.

If the UK’s population is to use a disposable mask every day, then 2.47 billion masks will be made, used and sent to land fill each year, equating to 1.5 million tonnes of CO2e. Per mask this makes the figure 0.006kgCO2e. The majority of this CO2e comes from the air freighting. It is unclear after the initial PPE shortage how many of these masks are still being air freighted but the UCL report assumes 100%.

If we compare footprints of disposable masks to a renewable mask company, such as YTA masks which we have been working with here at Tyndall Sustainability, we can calculate the burden to the environment saved by choosing reusable.

YTA’s footprint from every mark is 0.68kgCO2e. Although being higher per mask than standard disposable masks, these are meant to last. It would therefore take 11 days of wearing a YTA mask to equal the CO2e of a disposable and thereafter you are saving emissions. If we scale these values up over a year (assuming 6 reusable masks/person/year) we reach a saving of 1.2 million tonnes CO2e compared to a scenario of the UK population wearing disposable masks. The same as driving a car to and from the sun…15 times.

The emission saving of owning a reusable mask is only part of the environmental benefit. Disposable masks being found in huge number, in rural and urban areas worldwide. Photos are emerging of ecology suffering as a consequence of incorrect disposal techniques, although the scale is unknown, it again proves how quickly the impact of human activities is seen within nature.

As masks become added to the age old “key, wallet, phone” checklist, it is paramount that we choose the right way of covering our faces. It is rare that something comes along that is, more stylish, more environmentally friendly and cheaper all in one go.

To view the Whole UCL report click here

Benjamin Richardson

by Ben Richardson

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