Planning on having a ‘burn your facemask’ party when lockdown is lifted? Think again, says waste disposal expert

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Over a year since Covid-19 lockdowns began in the UK. the Great British public has, it seems, grown tired of wearing masks.

So much so, in fact,  that many are planning ‘burn your face mask’ parties once lockdown is lifted to mark an end to the havoc wreaked by Covid-19.

Face masks have been mandatory in shops and other indoor areas since July last year, although were being worn widely before summer – and, with all restrictions set to end on June 21st, it seems many have decided that will be the time to say goodbye to the cloth coverings that have been the most visible sign of the pandemic in everyday life.

“I want to feel free again,” said Lara, 29, who is planning a ‘Bubbles & Burning’ party with her friends as soon as restrictions are lifted. “I’m sick of constantly having to remember a mask, sick of feeling it on my face… we’re going to get a few bottles of Prosecco and chuck them in the fire pit, and good riddance.”

Kian, 19, agreed. “Me and my mates are going to have a few beers and a barbecue and then throw them on after we’ve cooked our burgers. I can’t wait to watch them go up in flames, to be honest!”

Gaz, 39 “I’m actually in the minority and quite enjoy my facemask, it has got me out of grooming my beard for the past 12 months”

Many feel similarly, with even those who are happy to comply with mask-wearing saying they’ll be ceremonially disposing of them as soon as lockdown is fully lifted. But, says, this is an unwise move for a number of reasons.

Mark Hall, the spokesperson for rubbish removal and landfill diversion experts, urged people not to get out the lighter fluid.

“While it’s tempting to want to set light to your mask and wave goodbye to what has been a horrible year for many people, burning them is pretty awful for the environment. Despite feeling like paper, the widely-used blue single-use masks are actually made from various type of polymer, materials which – when burned – release potentially dangerous chemicals into the environment. Reusable masks aren’t immune from these problems either, as burning any waste creates pollution and smoke – and after so long looking forward to taking a deep breath of fresh air without a mask in the way, it’d be a shame to ruin it with a lungful of smoke. That and you’re just going to have to buy another as the rules haven’t changed, you are required to wear one”

It’s not only the polluting effects of burning your face mask that are a bad idea, either.

group of 200 leading epidemiologists, data experts, virologists and other health researchers said in a recent survey that they expect mandatory wearing of face masks to be in place well into 2022, in what they say will ‘permanently’ change the culture. One researcher, Mark Jit at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said it wouldn’t be the law forever, but that it may become the norm to wear masks when ill in future: “It will stop being legally mandated at some point, but I think there will be a permanent culture change for people to wear face masks in public, especially when they have respiratory symptoms. We already saw that happen in Asia following SARS.”

It might be best, then, to keep hold of your masks, even as we return to pubs, offices and cinemas. But what to do with our dirty single-use masks in the mean time? Up to 50 million are used and discarded each day, meaning their disposal is an urgent problem that is already concerning waste experts.

“The most accessible thing for most of us, unfortunately, is to dispose of them in your main bin – they are technically medical waste, so can’t be recycled through your household bins,” said Hall. “We’d urge everyone to get a reusable mask, even as this hopefully late stage of the pandemic – if they’re going to be around for a while longer, a reusable mask will pay for itself quickly and can be washed and re-worn as many times as you want, saving hundreds of single-use masks making it to landfill.

“We campaigned for pop-up PPE bins on the high street to ensure proper disposal of single-use masks and avoid contamination of other waste, but sadly the Government still hasn’t come up with a simple, accessible solution for everyone to dispose of their masks. Some private businesses have come up with single-use mask recycling schemes, turning the waste material into furniture, building materials and more, which is amazing – but they’re far and few between, and the average person doesn’t have access to them.

“Our best advice is to use reusable masks and to ensure you’re following WHO guidelines on safe removal and disposal.”