In this Open Commentary we are responding to the current situation in the UK where the general population is under lockdown measures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without an available vaccine the government is considering different policy options to enable the restoration of freedom of movement and to restart the economy. One measure being considered by many countries is the mandatory wearing of face masks by the general population. This is due to a growing body of evidence to suggest that even basic face masks can be effective in reducing the spread of the virus, by reducing the range and volume of exhaled water droplets containing SARS-CoV-2. Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) does not currently recommend this measure as a means of preventing the spread of COVID-19, a growing number of countries have been adopting this precautionary measure including China, South Korea, Germany, Scotland, Spain amongst many others. In the UK due to shortages of PPE to supply to front-line workers in the hospitals and care homes, there is reluctance to adopt this measure in case this intensifies the shortage of PPE. If and when such PPE shortages abate there may be growing pressure to adopt this precautionary measure. The aim of this paper is to examine the environmental impact of the UK adopting masks for the general population in particular the amount of contaminated plastic waste produced.
We conclude that if the government decides to require the wearing of face masks in public, it should mandate reusable masks and not single-use masks. This will preserve single-use mask supplies for front-line healthcare workers, and reduce the environmental risks associated with the disposal of 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic mask waste in the household waste stream. Additionally, the use of reusable masks by the general population would significantly reduce plastic waste and the climate change impact of this policy measure. The methodology of the paper is applicable to the analysis of other countries whose use of single-use masks is also likely to be an important environmental issue for the next 12 months.