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      The environmental dangers of employing single-use face masks as part of a COVID-19 exit strategy

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            Author Summary


            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.


            Author and article information

            UCL Open: Environment Preprint
            UCL Press
            1 May 2020
            [1 ] UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, University College London, London, UK
            Author information

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

            : 1 May 2020
            UKRI/EPSRC EP/S024883/1

            All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article (and its supplementary information files).
            Environmental management, Policy & Planning
            PPE,Environmental policy and practice,Systems modelling,Sustainability,Incineration,Pre-symptomatic,Surgical mask,N95 respirator,MFA,LCA


            Decision Date: 31/7/2020

            Handling Editor: Dan Osborn

            The Handling Editor requested revisions; the article has been returned to the authors to make this revision.

            2020-09-17 13:03 UTC

            Decision Date: 07/05/2020

            Handling Editor: Dan Osborn

            This article is a preprint article and has not been peer-reviewed. It is under consideration following submission to UCL Open: Environment Preprint for open peer review.

            2020-09-17 13:02 UTC

            --- Please account for the main points made by each reviewer, updating the text in the light of any developments in the area.


            --- In particular, please improve the flow of the paper such that it reads as complete whole and avoids the issues of multi-author writing pointed up by Reviewer 2.


            --- The reviewer's expectations of the paper were interesting and he points up the multi-disciplinary nature of the paper. The paper strengths lie in this area nevertheless it may be possible to strengthen the environment aspects a little further.


            -- Please ensure the main finding that Reviewer 2 identifies is reflected in the Abstract and body of the paper.

            on behalf of Dan Osborn, Editor-in-Chief

            2020-07-31 15:03 UTC

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