UK volunteers have seen a “massive” rise in the amount of single use masks discarded on beaches, high streets, canals and rivers.
Single use personal protective equipment (PPE) is significantly adding to the already serious plastic pollution crisis, experts have warned.
An estimated 194 billion disposable masks and gloves are being used worldwide every month as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a study in Environmental Science and Technology.
Most single use PPE is made from a variety of plastics, including polypropylene, polyethylene and vinyl.
Volunteers across the UK have seen a “massive” rise in the amount of littering on high streets, beaches and in canals and rivers as a result of single use masks, according to Friends of the Earth.
Disposable plastic masks that end up at sea could take up to 450 years to fully decompose and leave the marine ecosystem, according to Waste Free Oceans, which says it collects and recycles marine litter by collaborating with fishermen and businesses.
Even when disposed of correctly, it is claimed PPE cannot be recycled, as it is considered medical waste.
It ends up either in landfill, or being incinerated, which can lead to toxic fumes and contributes to climate change.
With wearing masks now mandatory in shops, museums and on public transport, conservationists are urging those who are not considered high-risk, to buy reusable masks to help cut down on potentially tens of thousands of tonnes of extra plastic waste.
“The most important thing for all of us is health and to stop the virus spreading,” said Julian Kirby from Friends of the Earth.
He added: “But most of us are not in the high-risk category, and the government advice is clear that we should be using reusable face masks.
“We can reduce the amount of plastic we are using and still look after our health”.
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Certain single use respirators and plastic gloves do offer significantly more protection for those who are vulnerable.
Before the pandemic, the UN estimated that 13 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans every year.
Campaigners in France have warned that if single use masks continue being used at the current rate, there could soon be more masks in the Mediterranean than jellyfish.