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Living Sustainably: Face coverings and hand sanitiser

Living Sustainably: Face coverings and hand sanitiser

I previously wrote about the worrying increase in single-use items as we emerged from lockdown. While protecting our health is obviously a priority, it’s vital that we do so in a way that doesn’t reverse the huge progress we had been making in adopting reusable items.

With face coverings and hand sanitiser unfortunately set to be a part of our lives for a good while yet, I wanted to write a bit about the sustainable options available and why you should use them. And, as I explain, these options are just as effective in protecting you if used correctly.

As the video above shows, discarded items like disposable masks and latex gloves are turning up in the natural environment, where they pose a real threat to wildlife. In one heartbreaking news story, the RSPCA even went so far as to urge people to cut the ear loops on disposable face masks to stop animals becoming tangled in them.

Face coverings

Face coverings are now compulsory in many settings (for full details click here) and are as essential to remember to take out as our phones and keys. They are distinct from PPE - surgical masks and respirators, which are suitable for medical and industrial settings, and are “instead largely intended to protect others, not the wearer, against the spread of infection”. There are two options for face coverings, reusable and disposable, single use ones.

Although it’s likely that people are reusing them, the ubiquitous blue disposable face masks are just that - to use them safely they should only be used once and then disposed of. These masks are made from plastics like polypropylene and, according to the UK government’s own advice, cannot be recycled.  With widespread use now required there is an obvious environmental concern - University College London estimated that if every person in the UK used one disposable mask per day for a year then an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste would be created.

Instead, bodies like the London Assembly recommend the use of reusable face coverings, noting “there is no additional benefit in using a disposable covering versus a washed and clean reusable cloth one”. They further point out some of the advantages of using a reusable face covering, such as the fact reusing a face covering might help save money, they can be made from materials found around the home (for further information check out the Big Community Sew), and they are more sustainable and better for the environment.

Of course, reusable face coverings need to be used properly to be effective and the main takeaway is you will need more than one of them. The video and infographics below, from the World Health Organisation, give a detailed explanation but the main points are:

  • Clean your hands before and after touching your face covering
  • Avoid touching the mask while wearing it (only touch the ear loops)
  • Wash masks at least once a day
  • Ideally you should store your mask in a ziplock bag when not wearing it (to avoid plastic you could repurpose a silicone pouch)

World Health Organisation Fabric Masks - Do's


World Health Organisation Fabric Masks - Don'ts

Hand sanitisers

Like face coverings, hand sanitiser can now be found almost everywhere and there was even a global shortage earlier in the year. It’s been drilled into us all since the beginning of the pandemic that washing our hands regularly is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but what is perhaps less well understood is, according to the Centers for Disease Control, washing hands with soap and water is preferable - hand sanitiser should be used when soap and water are not available. Guidance on best practice for washing your hands is available from the NHS.

When choosing your hand sanitiser, we recommend avoiding anything with a pump dispenser if possible (these can’t be recycled) and ensuring that you recycle the container when empty.

Buy Sustainably has both face coverings and hand santisers available to help you protect yourself, and the environment.

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