ROSS CLARK: Why face mask fanatics are poisoning the planet
Centuries after someone was left alive who remembers the Covid pandemic, archaeologists won’t have to look far to find hallmark evidence from the past two years.
All over the world, every time they dig down to a certain level, they discover the remains of plastic face masks – a grim symbol of how long we have spent in the shadow of the virus and how we have striven to fight it.
Of course, masks will only be part of this mountain of Covid pollution: discarded latex gloves, throat swabs and other single-use paraphernalia are also despoiling cities, beaches, waterways and oceans. .
But masks remain the most potent emblem of the pandemic – and like lone Japanese soldiers still fighting World War II long after it ended, many people still refuse to give them up.
Centuries after someone was left alive who remembers the Covid pandemic, archaeologists won’t have to look far to find hallmark evidence from the past two years
This week, the issue was brought to the fore by Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith, who posted an extraordinary outburst online.
“More than 26,000 tons of the billions of plastic face masks we used have seeped into – and are now choking – the ocean,” he wrote. “This is catastrophic and unforgivable. Covid theaters are costing the Earth dearly. It really pains me to see . . . committed environmentalists lamenting the easing of restrictions on these largely unnecessary and nature-destroying masks. Now enough. Please.’
Peer, a longtime environmentalist, is absolutely correct.
The amount of plastic masks the world has used for minutes and then thrown away is staggering. Production has now been ramped up to such an extent that the American Chemical Society estimates that 129 billion masks are used globally every month, or nearly three million every minute.
It is a bitter irony. Just as Britain and the world had finally begun to tackle the scourge of plastic litter that besmirches our planet – a movement in Britain led in large part by the Mail campaign – many of these measures were abandoned when the virus has struck.
The global plastics industry has fared well after the pandemic. According to a report from last year, global consumption of single-use plastics has jumped 300% since Covid hit.
The blue and white surgical masks that many of us have strapped to our faces for the past two years may seem harmless enough, and their advocates certainly claim they are the lesser of two evils.
But they come with their own controversies, being constructed from layers of polypropylene, polyethylene and other plastics. It takes almost 500 years for polyethylene to break down and about 30 years for polypropylene to do so.
Besides the monstrous pollution they inflict on the world, masks make life horribly difficult for anyone with hearing difficulties – who are rendered unable to read lips – and often for those with conditions such as dementia, autism and schizophrenia, which depend on seeing people’s faces: like all humans
During this time, the masks release large amounts of pollutants. Last year, researchers at Swansea University found that common ‘disposable’ face masks leached high levels of dangerous chemicals into the water, including lead, antimony and copper. Over time, these can end up in the bodies of creatures, such as fish, that humans eat.
And as Goldsmith pointed out, masks pose a serious danger to wildlife. Countless gruesome images have emerged of birds, fish and other animals entangled in masks and often killed by them.
Last year, the Dutch University of Leiden started collecting such reports. Among the cases he found was that of a magnificent Yorkshire peregrine falcon whose talons had tragically been trapped by a mask.
Italian swans had taken their necks there, macaque monkeys in Malaysia were found chewing on them and fish in Holland died after swimming in latex gloves.
Individually, these cases are unfortunate – but repeated across the world, they represent a devastating assault on nature.
“Covid waste” is a global problem. A French non-profit marine association has warned: “Soon we will run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.”
A study by the University of Portsmouth last December found that masks accounted for 6% of all waste found in Britain – not to mention other Covid waste such as disposable gloves and bottles of disinfectant.
The amount of plastic face masks the world used for minutes and then threw away is staggering
Many public-minded people will pick up discarded packets of crisps and drink cans, but understandably draw the line at used masks, fearing infection.
And while many people reported washing masks and putting them in litter or recycling collections, three percent globally admitted to flushing them down toilets, threatening river and sea creatures. Another 19% admitted to simply throwing them out.
Few government policies in recent years have been as successful as the 5p tax on single-use plastic bags introduced in 2016 – a victory for this newspaper, which campaigned for it.
Within months, the number of such bags distributed by stores had dropped by 95%. Yet when it comes to masks, even the most nagging environmentalists seem oddly reckless.
Guardian columnist George Monbiot, hip rewilder and self-proclaimed nature lover, is often the first to demand that others wear masks around him.
“No you’re not allowed to blow germs in my face,” he once tweeted. Another time, he felt that “wearing a mask is caring for the lives of others.” No, one might answer, for the lives of unfortunate animals tangled and suffocated in the mountain of pollution the masks cause.
Do masks even work to prevent the spread of Covid-19? There is evidence that the more expensive and high quality ones help. But in January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control pointed out that loosely-woven fabric masks — the washable, reusable type often preferred by environmentally conscious people — offer the least protection.
And while the masks worked perfectly every time, stopping the spread of Covid isn’t the end of existence.
Besides the monstrous pollution they inflict on the world, masks make life horribly difficult for anyone with hearing difficulties – who are rendered unable to read lips – and often for those with conditions such as dementia, autism and schizophrenia, which depend on seeing people’s faces: like all humans.
Children also need to see other people’s faces as they grow and develop. Even though UK schools were told to remove masks on January 27, some teachers reportedly refused to do so, with Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi forced to insist children ‘enjoy a normal experience’ by class.
In Scotland, the obsession with the disturbed mask of the nationalist regime of Nicola Sturgeon persists. Mask-wearing remains compulsory for anyone over the age of 12 in shops and other public places, including churches – although Sturgeon was happy to sit dangerously unmasked at Westminster Abbey this week for the service Prince Philip Memorial, just yards from our 95 year old Queen. .
And the final irony? In Scotland, where masks are happy, Covid infection rates are currently higher than they are in England, with one in 11 people north of the border having the virus, compared to one in 16 people in the south of it. Similar examples can be found around the world.
Covid was a global health emergency and understandably people grabbed a quick fix to try and reduce the spread.
But now we and our planet are paying the price, and it’s time to throw the masks in the trash for good.