How to recycle disposable face masks

Remember when the pandemic first started and we all felt like we were starring in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, donning medical face masks before heading out? Now they’ve become a regular part of our everyday lives and something we automatically pick up alongside our keys, phone and purse.

face mask
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We soon realised how damaging disposable face masks are for the environment, not to mention the cost of having to constantly buy new ones. They’re made from a type of plastic called polypropylene fabric, which can take 450 years to decompose in nature, according to climate action group Waste Free Oceans.

While many of us now wear reusable masks, sometimes they get caught in the laundry pile-up (okay, we forget to put them in the wash), and we have to rely on disposable ones. But the good news is, there is a way to recycle them once they’ve been worn to minimise the environmental impact from their disposal.

Wilko became the first major UK business to offer a recycling scheme last year. The high street shop teamed up with Scan2Recycle and ReWorked to create a system in which you can recycle face masks at special collection bins located in 150 Wilko stores nationwide.

Once the collection bins are full, they’re taken away by ReWorked, quarantined for 72 hours, washed and shredded down into raw materials. These are then manufactured into new products.

If you can’t get to a Wilko store, you may prefer to invest in a disposable face mask recycling bin from TerraCycle. A face mask waste box can be purchased from its website, starting from £132.72 for a small box. Simply fill it with disposable masks and PPE, and send it back to the company with pre-paid postage. They will separate it into metals, fibres, and plastics. The metals and fibres are recycled accordingly, and the plastics are moulded into new recycled plastic products.

face mask
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There are so-called recyclable disposable face masks are on sale, however many can’t be recycled alongside your tins and cardboard kerbside. So if you haven’t got a couple of reusable, washable face masks already, it’s well-worth buying them – even with hopes that they will soon become a thing of the past once the pandemic has relaxed. There are so many different types on the market now, from more breathable options to silk and satin styles to help reduce ‘maskne’.

Washable masks don’t cost much – less than the cost to the environment, anyway. According to University College London’s Plastics Innovation Hub, if just half of the UK’s population used one disposable mask per day for a year, that adds up to 12 billion masks a year. That’s equal to more than 30,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste – about three times the weight of the Eiffel Tower!