Three quarters of Brits have seen a rise in PPE litter, poll reveals

Three quarters of Britons have seen a rise in PPE litter since the start of the pandemic as campaigners call on government to promote the benefits of re-usable masks

  • Countryside charity CPRE finds 76 per cent of people have noticed littered PPE
  • In all 78 per cent would like to see the government take action to tackle waste  
  • CPRE is stressing the greener benefits of reusable masks over single-use masks 

Just over three quarters of Brits have seen a rise in littered personal protective equipment (PPE) since the start of the pandemic, new figures reveal.

According to a poll commissioned by countryside charity CPRE, 76 per cent of adults have noticed PPE being littered. 

More than a third – 38 per cent – have seen more litter near to where they live since the start of the pandemic. 

While 78 per cent would like to see the government take more action to tackle an increase in PPE, which includes masks, plastic gloves and visors.    

CPRE is urging the government to support local authorities to create ‘comprehensive refuse and recycling systems’ and promote the benefits of re-usable masks over single-use masks.   

Most face masks available for sale are made from layers of plastics and are designed to be single-use

CPRE’s poll, conducted by YouGov, quizzed 1,964 adults across England on their perceptions of changes in litter since March 2020.

– 76 per cent of respondents noticed more Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) litter since the start of lockdown and 48 per cent noticed a lot more.

– 38 per cent noticed more litter near to where they live since the start of lockdown, while 34 per cent noticed about the same amount of litter

– 39 per cent noticed more fly tipping since the start of lockdown

– 78 per cent agree the government should be taking more action to tackle litter, including 33 per cent who strongly agree government should be doing more. 

CPRE has used responses from the English adults to estimate the responses of Brits. 

‘Litter is a completely avoidable blight that currently scars our countryside,’ said Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE. 

‘As more people than ever before venture into their local green space or countryside next door, it’s crucial that the government redoubles efforts to tackle litter and stops it pilling up in our beautiful countryside.’ 

Widely-available masks feature a layer of non-woven bonded fabric to filter microorganisms from the mouth and nose – commonly made of polypropylene.

Although they keep out pathogens effectively, single-use masks have a long afterlife after they are discarded, ending up in landfill. 

Plastic waste dropped on the street can get washed into drains and enter local rivers, contaminating water with the pathogen, and even end up in oceans. 

And apart from the potential risk of spreading disease, experts warn they can pose a choking hazard to wildlife. 

Waste PPE is now a common site in 2020, alongside wrappers, cartons, bottles and cups.  

It’s thought that a reusable face cloth covering made at home – which the government advocates on its website with guidance on how to make one – are just as effective as the cheap, mass-produced light green variants sold in supermarkets. 

Other high-quality reusable masks, which usually sell for higher prices but tend to last longer, are also a good option. 

Single-use plastic gloves and masks being used by non-healthcare professionals will negatively impact the environment

CPRE is also stressing the need for government to implement its mooted deposit return scheme without further delays.

In more than 40 countries and regions around the world, such schemes – which involve returning used material for a small monetary return – can drive up collection rates for drinks containers to more than 90 per cent.    

The UK government plans to introduce a deposit return scheme for bottles and cans in 2023 and it must ensure this timescale does not slip, according to the charity. 

‘Hugely successful in other European countries, these schemes are proven to help drive unprecedented recycling rates and ensure thousands of tonnes of litter don’t end up in the countryside,’ said Truman. 

‘We need a waste system that is responsive to changes in behaviour – our current system has been failing for a long time, the pandemic simply put a spotlight on the waste crisis and it’s high time ministers stepped in.

‘By investing in whole system solutions to address litter, including a fully inclusive deposit return scheme, we can deal with the long-lasting problem once and for all.’ 


1. Hand Sanitiser vs Soap

Hand sanitiser has been in high demand globally during 2020, but the 70% alcohol gel which kills bacteria and viruses (including COVID-19) often comes in a plastic bottle.

To reduce plastic consumption, consider switching to a bar of soap and warm water for washing your hands. 

Bars of soap can often be found in entirely biodegradable packaging, making the impact on the environment considerably less than hand sanitiser. 

Alternatively, opting for liquid soap which can be refilled would allow you to reduce your plastic consumption without major changes to your lifestyle.

Ensuring you follow hand washing advice, the government states washing your hands is as effective as hand sanitiser for reducing the risk of getting ill.

2. Disposable Masks vs Washable Masks

Scientists at UCL have estimated that if every person in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, we would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste and create ten times more climate change impact than using reusable masks.

In a hospital environment, single-use protective wear such as masks and gloves are contaminated items, and there are systems in place for their safe disposal, which involve segregation and incineration.

Surgical grade N95 respirators offer the highest level of protection against COVID-19 infection, followed by surgical grade masks. 

However, evidence suggests that reusable masks perform most of the tasks of single-use masks without the associated waste stream. 

Material, reusable masks present a great eco-friendly alternative as long as they are washed after each use.

3. Plastic Bags vs Material

In October 2015, the government introduced new laws to curb the use of plastic bags in the UK. 

Since then, the number of plastic bags in the UK has dropped. 

The coronavirus, however, has seen more people turn to disposable bags, with several states in the USA banning reusable bags entirely.

Whilst the evidence is still unclear about how long COVID-19 can live on clothing, Vincent Munster, from the National Institutes of Health told the BBC that the NIH speculates ‘it desiccates rapidly’ on porous materials. 

General advice is instead of ditching reusable bags, to ensure they are washed regularly and anyone who comes into contact with them also washes their hands.

4. Coffee Cups vs Reusables

Coffee cups have been a large focus for plastic-free campaigners in recent years. 

However, as lockdown restrictions have eased and coffee shops have begun to reopen, many are returning to throw-away coffee cups to reduce the risk of contracting the virus. 

Several large coffee chains, which previously accepted reusable coffee cups, have also halted the use of them amid safety concerns.

Despite widespread concerns, more than 100 scientists, doctors, and academics have endorsed the sensible use of reusable containers as safe and unlikely to contribute to the further spread of COVID-19. 

Reusable cups should be washed thoroughly with hot water and soap.

5. Takeaway Pint Glasses vs #PlasticFreePints

As pubs reopened at the weekend, many were turning to plastic cups in order to aid takeaway orders and to reduce the need for staff to touch used glasses.

Similarly to the reusable coffee cups, if washed thoroughly, a reusable glass or tumbler could be a simple sustainable swap to help curb the growing coronavirus waste problem.

Ours to Save, a platform for global climate news, and EcoDisco, a sustainable events company, have created the #PlasticFreePints initiative to encourage pub-goers to use reusable alternatives in place of the typical single-use plastic on offer. 


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