Single-use masks becoming an environmental issue in UK - but NZ could help out

Kiwi businesses could soon play a part in helping reduce the serious global plastic pollution crisis exacerbated by the amount of discarded single use personal protective equipment (PPE).

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Masks are being found discarded on streets, beaches, parks and even in the ocean. Source: 1 NEWS

Blue face masks have become the symbol of the coronavirus pandemic and although they might help prevent the spread of the killer disease, across the UK huge volumes of masks end up on streets, parks and even in the ocean.

“It was really stark to see this new pollutant take control of the clean ups that we were doing,” environmentalist Emily Stevenson told 1 NEWS.

The 23-year-old marine biologist runs a litter picking group along a 16 kilometre stretch of the Cornwall coast and since England’s first lockdown in March she’s collected thousands of face masks and plastic gloves. She’s also seen first-hand the impact it’s having on both marine and wildlife.

“I’ve once before found a pile of fox poo on my litter picks and inside was a plastic glove so we know what's happening in the environment but we also know what we can do to tackle it. If we put it in the bin it'll stop it from harming wildlife,” she said.

British scientists estimate more than 124,000 tons of unrecyclable masks have been dumped so far. And there really hasn’t been an environmentally friendly option - until now.

Recycling company Terracycle, with 21 offices around the world including New Zealand, is now turning its attention to masks. Europe General Manager Laure Cucuron told 1 NEWS the company has been recycling disposable masks used in industrial sites but since the rise of the pandemic it's now readapted by encouraging businesses, councils, even schools to sponsor their PPE waste boxes.

“They fill the box with single use masks or gloves, the box is then sent back to a central location where they’re quarantined to ensure safety, the waste is aggregated and once there’s enough volume they’re sent to recycling plant for process," Cucuron said.

The process sees the masks and elastic shredded, the metal melted and reused and the plastic transformed into pellets then into outdoor furniture.

The initiative is set to be launched in New Zealand in the coming months.