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      The impact and effectiveness of the general public wearing masks to reduce the spread of pandemics in the UK: a multidisciplinary comparison of single-use masks versus reusable face masks

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            Abstract

            During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the UK government mandated the use of face masks in various public settings and recommended the use of reusable masks to combat shortages of medically graded single-use masks in healthcare. To assist decision-making on the choice of masks for future pandemics, where shortages may not be a contributing factor, the University College London (UCL) Plastic Waste Innovation Hub has carried out a multidisciplinary comparison between single-use and reusable masks based on their anatomy, standalone effectiveness, behavioural considerations, environmental impact and costs. Although current single-use masks have a higher standalone effectiveness against bacteria and viruses, studies show that reusable masks have adequate performance in slowing infection rates of respiratory viruses. Material flow analysis (MFA), life cycle assessment (LCA) and cost comparison show that reusable masks have a lower environmental and economic impact than single-use masks. If every person in the UK uses one single-use mask each day for a year, it will create a total of 124,000 tonnes of waste, 66,000 tonnes of which would be unrecyclable contaminated plastic waste (the masks), with the rest being the recyclable packaging typically used for transportation and distribution of masks. Using reusable masks creates >85% less waste, generates 3.5 times lower impact on climate change and incurs 3.7 times lower costs. Further behavioural research is necessary to understand the extent and current practices of mask use; and how these practices affect mask effectiveness in reducing infection rates. Wearing single-use masks may be preferred over reusable masks due to perceptions of increased hygiene and convenience. Understanding behaviour towards the regular machine-washing of reusable masks for their effective reuse is key to maximise their public health benefits and minimise environmental and economic costs.

            Author and article information

            Journal
            UCL Open Environ
            UCLOE
            UCL Open Environment
            UCL Open Environ
            UCL Press (UK )
            2632-0886
            25 August 2021
            2021
            : 3
            : e022
            Affiliations
            [1 ]UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, University College London, 90 Tottenham Court Road, London W1T 4TJ, UK
            Author notes
            *Corresponding author: E-mail: m.miodownik@ 123456ucl.ac.uk

            aAuthors in alphabetical order, the contributions of each author are included in the Acknowledgements.

            Author information
            https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0931-3030
            Article
            10.14324/111.444/ucloe.000022
            10208332
            d95d7007-ba12-4774-a7f1-f2b7d228b2f7
            © 2021 The Authors.

            This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC BY) 4.0, which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

            History
            : 01 May 2020
            : 05 July 2021
            Page count
            Figures: 8, Tables: 27, References: 111, Pages: 43
            Funding
            UKRI/EPSRC EP/S024883/1.
            Categories
            Research Article

            multidisciplinary comparison,disposable,PPE,reusable,face mask,LCA,MFA,respirator,surgical mask,waste management

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