Whenever I see pictures of Greta Thunberg these days she’s wearing a ‘disposable’ mask. The characteristic volcanic indignation we associate with this climate warrior doesn’t seem to extend to the ecological hazard covering her nose and mouth.

It should.

These single-use face masks contain a mix of paper and plastic microfibres, such as polypropylene, polyurethane, polycarbonate, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyacrylonitrile, polyethylene, and polyester, that defies state-of-the-art recycling. Throw your used mask in a landfill bin and that is definitely not the end of the matter.

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It will fragment into smaller particles – micro and nano-plastics – that spread through our ecosystems. These mixed materials can’t be separated into pure streams of single materials for recycling either.

Drop one into the recycling bin in the belief that you’re doing the right thing and they get caught in the recycling plant’s machinery and cause breakdowns. When will we face up to the harms such masks do and replace them with washable fabric alternatives?

Masks have been presented to us as an effective approach to slowing down Covid transmission rates, although a solid body of evidence proving that they have any statistically significant effect is lacking. Nevertheless, the wearing of the single-use type now poses a titanic environmental threat with considerable adverse consequences for human health.

The sheer scale of the problem is hard to comprehend. Recent studies estimate that we use an eye-popping 129 billion face masks globally every month. That’s 3 million a minute.

Around the globe abandoned single-use masks wash up on beaches. Last summer, when the Marine Conservation Society carried out its annual beach pick-up, it found masks (and plastic gloves) on a quarter of Scottish beaches. “Considering masks were only made mandatory a few months ago, the spike in their presence on our shores is worrying” a spokesperson for the MCS warned.

A year ago, we never dreamed that so many masks would be needed for so long. But our use has exploded, and now the fall-out is all around us. After 16 months of intensive single-use mask use, and without any concrete government measures to contain the problem, this hazard has exceeded the most pessimistic expectations.

From the beach to the park, in city streets and along country paths, mask pollution has become another unacceptable face of the New Abnormal and aggravated already chronic litter problems.

Graphic pictures of volunteers picking sodden masks from the sea from Singapore to Stornoway don’t tell the full story.

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These masks, and other objects of pandemic pollution – ‘disposable’ gloves, wipes, aprons, spent tests, face shields, and assorted PPE – contribute to micro-plastic pollution. From them, particles invisible to the naked eye, enter both fresh and coastal waters.

Like other plastic debris, disposable masks release harmful chemical and biological substances, such as gender-bender Bisphenol A, heavy metals, and pathogenic micro-organisms. You can imagine the consequent adverse impacts on plants, wildlife and humans.

Particles from single-use masks are eaten by marine organisms and so make their way through the food chain and into our guts. This is why micro-plastics are now found in shellfish and fish. By land and sea, plastic pollution contaminates the web of life on earth.

Guess what? Consumption of foods contaminated with micro-plastics can also have severe detrimental effects on human health. Chromosome alteration, obesity, cancer, and infertility, are just a few linked conditions. Courtesy of ‘pandemic protection’, more plastics have popped onto our plates.

This snow storm of single use-masks is a nightmare on a par with plastic bottles. Apparently the world generates 43 billion of those every month.

Toxicologists in Denmark and the US recently warned that masks could become the world’s next big plastic problem.

And we were already struggling to manage our plastic residue pre-masks. Greenpeace says that less than 10% of the UK’s household plastic packaging waste gets recycled in the UK. Just one in every 10 bottles and yoghurt pots.

But it gets recycled somewhere abroad, right? Wrong. Greenpeace says that it just gets dumped or burned in the open air in countries like Turkey or Malaysia that are already up to their necks in plastic debris of their own.

It should be obvious to thoughtful individuals that we must substitute reusable fabric versions for these disastrous single-use masks.

The question is how can we go about making that happen on a more systematic basis?

My personal approach is to wear masks as little as possible. I am cynical about their efficacy. When I have to, I use a freshly laundered cloth one. And if I was handy with a needle and thread, I’d embroider my fabric masks, Vivienne Westwood-style, with some anti-authoritarian statement. Inspired by her famous “I am not a terrorist. Please do not arrest me” slogan, it might read, “We are human beings. Please smile at me”.

But single-use masks benefit from the worrying ‘safety-ism’ that pervades post-Covid society. They look crisp and clean. Their plastic newness can be mistaken for offering a more advanced level of hygiene and sterility than even the best tended fabric equivalent.

Single-use masks are just the job, until, that is, you open your eyes to the insanitary mess they create beyond the tip of your nose.

Nicola Sturgeon seems hell-bent on mandating masks for the foreseeable future. With that policy – which I consider mistaken, but there it is – should come an obligation to wean the public off single-use masks.

These misnamed disposables are insidiously cheap, which simply encourages us to use more of them thoughtlessly, largely unaware of the damage they cause.

A public education campaign to build awareness that single-use masks are a menace could be backed by a mask tax, similar to the minimum 10 pence levy on every new single-use carrier bag.

It’s less about the pennies than the message such a tax would send. We must get the word out to Greta, and everyone else, as quickly as possible.

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