A mountain of mask-related waste

The LGA and partners have been working together to tackle the environmental impact of face coverings.

One trillion and counting… that’s how many face coverings have been used globally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is estimated that the UK is using more than 58 million face masks each day, with a large percentage of them going into landfill – potentially creating a new, long-term pollution issue.  

As part of the LGA’s response to the climate emergency, we recently commissioned two collaborative sessions to discuss how we might urgently minimise the impact of disposable face coverings on the environment.

The participants were asked to consider the far-reaching environmental, social and economic impacts of these products that go well beyond just the single-use plastic element. This includes considerations such as: the extraction of the raw material, plastics, fabric and aluminium; the impact on CO2 emissions of waste treatment and transportation of the product to the UK; the economic impact of sourcing policies and government policies – for example, supporting UK manufacturing and driving economic prosperity within our regions; and the way consumers view, use and dispose of the products. 

The participants all gave of their time freely and included senior people from various high-profile private companies, central and local government, the NHS and charities.

The two sessions produced numerous ideas, but they were distilled into three broad themes: recycling of the material outside of normal waste streams; clear messaging for the consumer on how and what to recycle; and systemised change, with more community engagement.

We wanted to engage with different stakeholders to gain a broad perspective on the issue. The workshops truly showed the power of collaboration when we have a common goal. It was the participants’ different backgrounds and perspectives that drove these collaborative efforts, not their similarities.

As a consequence of these sessions, the British Standards Institute has invited the group to review the draft personal protective equipment (PPE) standard, Flex 5555, for community face coverings.  

Businesses have also come forward with new and innovative recycling systems and technologies that are being investigated by central and local government. These include: the formation of a new, commercial, fully circular recycling solution partnership; investigations into a new material manufacturer in the UK; and discussions between major retailers and local councils to help distribute PPE-mask recycling bins on high streets. 

Author

For more information please email Georgia.rudin@local.gov.uk

Previous

Youth unemployment

A roadmap to recovery

Next