25th Mar 2023

MEPs urged to find alternative to 'one-use' Covid masks

  • The use of disposable face masks by MEPs and parliament personnel will lead to 12,000kg of non-recycled waste per year (Photo: Ivan Radic)

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a massive increase in masks, face visors or gloves - often only single-use, and which are is causing major litter problems and undermining the EU's fight against plastic pollution.

But in the name of safety, the use of disposable masks within all the European Parliament's premises became mandatory earlier this month, triggering disquiet from green groups.

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An environmental NGO on Monday (29 March) urged the president of the EU Parliament, David Sassoli, to find an alternative solution that can provide both adequate safety and circularity.

The use of disposable medical face masks or disposable FFP2 masks by MEPs and parliament personnel will lead to 12,000kg of non-recycle waste per year, the Brussels-based NGO Zero Waste Europe estimates.

"You are proposing a solution that promotes untraceable, disposable, toxic, un-recyclable masks to fight the pandemic, using a single-use logic that has put our ecosystems and biodiversity at risk and indirectly led to the ongoing sanitary crisis," they said in a letter sent to Sassoli on Monday.

Zero Waste Europe urged the institution to avoid "double-standards" since its report on the new Circular Economy Action Plan, voted in February, asks the European Commission to ensure that "products placed on the EU market perform well, are durable, reusable, can be easily repaired, are not toxic, can be upgraded and recycled".

As an alternative solution, the NGO suggests using non-toxic, made-in-Europe reusable masks that have a traceability system.

It has been estimated that nearly 194 billion disposable masks and 65 billion gloves are required every month globally.

If not properly discarded, this type of equipment can end up in the oceans, where it takes up to 450 years to break down, according to the NGO Waste Free Oceans.

The site Covid Litter, reveals cases of ingestion of Covid-19 litter by animals and fish, as finding gloves and face masks in bird nests.

For Joan Marc Simon, executive director at Zero Waste Europe, the decision to make disposable masks obligatory by the EU Parliament brings two main environmental concerns.

"The first [risk] is the direct generation of waste by the European Parliament. The second is the bad example this institution is setting for Europeans, rather than inspiring citizens to do the right thing and showing that it is possible to tackle the Covid-19 crisis in a sustainable way," he said.

"When there are alternatives that are at least as safe as the disposable options, priority should be given to reusable solutions," he added.

When asked by EUobserver if they had carried an assessment prior to the measure, a parliament spokesperson said that the environmental angle was indeed taken into account, as so were the medical recommendations.

Take-away food plastic pandemic

Meanwhile the surge of demand in online shopping and restaurants closure during the lockdown periods has increased single-use plastic packaging products.

Plastic packaging is hugely responsible for environmental littering, which led to the adoption of the EU's single-use plastics directive.

Meanwhile, falling global oil prices have also made it significantly cheaper for manufacturers to produce plastic from fossil-based materials than to use recycled plastic materials - putting the economic viability of the European and global plastics recycling market under pressure, the European Environment Agency warned in a recent report.

The Copenhagen-based EU agency points out that increased production of single-use plastics will lead to more air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and waste generation.

In the EU, annual emissions related to plastic production amount to some 13.4m tonnes of CO2.


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