The environmental disaster of single-use masks in France

People in France are forgetting about the environmental damage caused by single-use masks in their panic over coronavirus, a representative of an environmental protection federation in France has said.

2 September 2020
By Thomas Brent

Face masks have become ubiquitous in France since deconfinement earlier this year, and are now mandatory in all enclosed public spaces and throughout many major cities, including Marseille and Nice. 

Pénélope Vincent-Sweet, who works as a volunteer in prevention and waste management for France Nature Environnement, said there is a risk that in a bid to protect themselves from coronavirus, people are forgetting about the ecological and environmental consequences of dropping masks in the street. 

“I do think it is very disappointing how, as soon as anything comes along which gets in the way of normal life, the recently acquired ideas such as protecting the environment or protecting social welfare, just get brushed aside,” she told Connexion

A July survey commissioned by Fondation d'entreprise VINCI Autoroutes, a foundation set up to encourage responsible driving, found that single-use masks have become a common item of waste found discarded on the side of the road. 

“The abandonment of used disposable masks on pavements is a new behaviour linked to the context of the health crisis,” the foundation stated in a press release. 

“Questioned about this uncivil, even irresponsible behaviour, 5% of French people admit that they have already thrown away or lost a mask on public roads (up to 11% among those under 25 years old), which is the equivalent of more than 2 million people in the population.”

Single-use masks are non-recyclable and must be incinerated. Ms Vincent-Sweet said the best option is for people to put them in the bin. 

“Any litter on the streets is problematic for the environment,” she said. 

She advocated that instead of single-use masks, people use washable, reusable masks.

“In general in our waste network we fight against single-use, which is kind of the epitome of unsustainability,” she said. 

Free masks for school kids?

A number of politicians, including government opposition figure and member of the French National Assembly Jean-Luc Mélenchon, called for the government to provide free masks for school pupils when they returned to school (September 1). 

Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer stated before la rentrée that masks for school pupils will not be provided by the government. 

“We do the same as with the rest of society, whether it's in the public or private sector: national education staff will have a mask provided by the institution,” he said in an interview on TV station France 2. 

And Ms Vincent-Sweet supported this idea. 

“There was a big debate about giving free masks to school children. All the left-wing parties were saying yes they have to be free, it’s scandalous to make [parents] pay,” she said.

“But I utterly disagree because obviously the free masks are likely to be single-use ones, and that would just multiply the use of single-use masks by an enormous amount.”

Single-use masks on planes

French airlines Air France and Air Corsica are only allowing passengers onto their flights if they are wearing single-use surgical masks, and not material masks. 

Connexion sent an email to both companies asking why but did not receive a response. 

Staff at the French coronavirus helpline told Connexion that surgical masks are required on planes because they are more effective than material masks. 

This is supported by an academic paper published in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, which concluded that surgical masks were far superior to certain material masks in reducing the transmission of respiratory droplets during speech. 

The virus that cause COVID-19 spreads primarily through droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks, the World Health Organisation states. 

Ms Vincent-Sweet called for a sense of perspective over single-use masks. 

She said that just because there is a global pandemic, people should not forget how to sort their waste. 

There is a fine of €68 for anyone caught dropping disposable masks or gloves on the streets in France, which can increase to €180 in the case of delayed payment.

Read more about masks in France: 

Nabila Ramdani: masks have dramatically changed daily life

Rules for wearing a mask at work in France

La rentrée: will the French state provide masks for my kids?

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