The coronavirus pandemic has impacted people and businesses in every corner of the world. Nationwide restrictions across the globe mean many are now working from home for the foreseeable and face masks have become a mandatory feature of our weekly food shop.

Sadly, this pandemic will likely only be the first in a long line of crises unless we act fast. In these dangerous times, we all need to take extra precautions to protect ourselves from coronavirus — as well as other novel viruses and bacteria which will continue to appear. As such, the mass distribution of personal protective equipment throughout the population will be vital.

But at what cost?

Polluting our planet

Over the past couple of years, there has been a significant campaign against single-use plastics. Plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds have all been banned in the UK, and many supermarkets are starting to introduce more sustainable packaging.

Enter 2020 and all that work was quickly undone as millions around the world turned to single-use plastics to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

In the time leading up to the pandemic, environmentalists had frequently warned of the threat plastic pollution posed to oceans and marine life — with 2018 estimates claiming as much as 13 million tonnes of plastic goes into our oceans each year. If every person in the UK used one single-use face mask each day for a year, that would create an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste (75 per cent of which would likely end up in landfills or floating in the seas).

The majority of these masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials with a lifespan of 450 years, meaning they can have enduring consequences for our planet.

Plastic waste can smother environments and break up ecosystems. Animals may choke on the material or become entangled in the masks as they begin to break apart. As the plastics break down into microplastics and eventually smaller nanoplastics, these tiny particles can also accumulate in food chains. Just one mask can produce millions of particles — each with the potential to carry chemicals and bacteria up the food chain and potentially even into humans.

Coronavirus is also known to survive on plastic surgical masks for seven days in certain conditions, meaning discarded masks could increase the risk of contamination.

Yet, people need to protect themselves from this virus and others like it. So, what is the alternative?

A sustainable solution

Many have taken to wearing reusable cotton masks in the UK which, although better for the environment, are not nearly as effective in terms of protection. Be honest — how many times have you washed your face mask since buying it?

Even if you have more than one mask and alternate between them, you should still wash and dry it after every use. However, this can be time-consuming and mean paying for multiple masks just to ensure you always have a clean one ready to use.

But what if the material itself was antimicrobial and the mask could be sterilised in just five minutes, without the need for disinfectant, hand sanitiser or having to put it through the wash?

The medical silicone commonly used in the medical, pharmaceutical, food and beverage sectors is the ideal material for masks thanks to its efficient antimicrobial properties, which reduce bad odours caused by sweating as well as the risk of infection. However, one of the most significant advantages of using this material in masks is that it can be sterilised simply by putting it in a microwave, oven or boiling water for five minutes.

When combined with replaceable FFP2 filters, these types of masks offer complete protection. These filters also have a small material mass compared to disposable masks, making them a more environmentally friendly solution.