Centuries after anyone is left alive who remembers the Covid pandemic, archaeologists won’t have to look hard to find characteristic evidence about the past two years.
Across the world, whenever they dig to a certain level, they will uncover the remains of plastic face masks — a grim symbol of the period we spent under the virus’s shadow and how we strove to battle it.
Of course, masks will be only one part of this mountain of Covid pollution: discarded latex gloves, throat swabs and other single-use paraphernalia are also despoiling cities, beaches, waterways and oceans.
But masks remain the most potent emblem of the pandemic — and like isolated Japanese soldiers still fighting World War II long after it ended, many people still refuse to give them up.
This week, the issue was thrown into sharp focus by the environment minister Zac Goldsmith, who published an extraordinary outburst online.
‘More than 26,000 tonnes of the billions of plastic masks we’ve used have leaked into — and are now choking — the ocean,’ he wrote. ‘It is catastrophic and unforgivable. Covid theatrics are costing the Earth. It genuinely pains me to see. . . committed environmentalists bemoaning the loosening of restrictions on these largely pointless and nature-ruining masks. Enough now. Please.’
The peer, a longstanding conservationist, is absolutely right.
The sheer quantity of plastic masks the world has used for minutes and then thrown away is staggering. Production has now been ramped up to such an extent that the American Chemical Society estimates 129 billion masks are used every month around the world — nearly three million every single minute.
It is a bitter irony. Just as Britain and the world had finally begun to tackle the scourge of plastic waste sullying our planet — a movement spearheaded in Britain largely by the Mail’s campaigning — many of those steps were jettisoned when the virus struck.
The world’s plastic industry has done well from the pandemic. According to a report last year, global consumption of single-use plastics has leapt by 300 per cent since Covid hit.
The blue-and-white surgical masks that many of us have been strapping to our faces for two years may look harmless enough, and certainly their defenders claim they are the lesser of two evils.
But they come with their own controversies, being constructed from layers of polypropylene, polyethylene and other plastics. It takes almost 500 years for polyethylene to break down, and about 30 years for polypropylene to do so.
During that time, the masks release large quantities of pollutants. Last year, Swansea University researchers found that common ‘disposable’ face masks leached high levels of dangerous chemicals into water, including lead, antimony and copper. Over time, these may find their way into the bodies of creatures, such as fish, that humans eat.
And as Goldsmith pointed out, the masks are a serious hazard to wildlife. Countless horrifying pictures have emerged of birds, fish and other animals becoming entangled in masks and often being killed by them.
Last year, Holland’s University of Leiden started collecting such reports. Among the cases it found was one of a magnificent peregrine falcon in Yorkshire whose talons had tragically become ensnared by a mask.
Italian swans had had their necks caught in them, macaque monkeys in Malaysia were found chewing them and fish in Holland died after swimming into latex gloves.
Individually, these cases are unfortunate — but repeated across the world they represent a devastating assault on nature.
‘Covid litter’ is a worldwide problem. One French marine non-profit has warned: ‘Soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.’
A study from the University of Portsmouth last December found that masks accounted for 6 per cent of all litter found in Britain — never mind other Covid trash such as disposable gloves and sanitiser bottles.
Many public-spirited people will pick up discarded crisp packets and drinks cans but understandably draw the line at used masks, fearing infection.
And although many people have reported washing masks and putting them in waste or recycling collections, three per cent worldwide have admitted flushing them down the toilet, threatening river and marine creatures. A further 19 per cent have confessed to simply throwing them away when outdoors.
Few government policies of recent years have been as successful as the 5p levy on single-use plastic bags that was introduced in 2016 — a victory for this newspaper, which campaigned for it.
Within months, the number of such bags handed out by shops had plummeted by 95 per cent. Yet when it comes to masks, even the most hectoring environmentalists seem bizarrely unconcerned.
The Guardian columnist George Monbiot, a proponent of trendy ‘rewilding’ and self-proclaimed nature-lover, is often the first to demand that other people wear masks around him.
‘No, you do not have a human right to breathe germs into my face,’ he once primly tweeted. Another time he opined that ‘to wear a mask is to care for the lives of others’. Not, one might respond, for the lives of unfortunate animals tangled and suffocated in the mountain of pollution that masks are causing.
Do masks even work in preventing the spread of Covid-19? There is some evidence that the most expensive, high-grade ones do help. But in January, America’s Centres for Disease Control pointed out that loosely woven cloth masks — the washable, reusable kind often favoured by the environmentally-conscious
Children, too, need to see other people’s faces as they grow and develop. Even though British schools were told to scrap masks on January 27, some teachers have reportedly refused to do so, with Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi being forced to insist that children should ‘enjoy a normal experience’ in the classroom.
In Scotland, the deranged mask obsession of Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalist regime persists. Mask-wearing remains compulsory for everyone aged over 12 in shops and other public places, including churches — although Sturgeon was happy to sit dangerously unmasked in Westminster Abbey this week for Prince Philip’s memorial service, only feet away from our 95-year-old Queen.
And the final irony? In mask-happy Scotland, Covid infection rates are currently higher than they are in England, with one person in 11 north of the border having the virus, compared with one person in 16 south of it. Similar examples can be found around the world.
Covid was a global health emergency and it is understandable that people seized on a quick way to try to reduce the spread.
But now we and our planet are paying the cost, and it is time we consigned masks to the dustbin for good.
— offer the least protection.
And even if masks worked perfectly every time, stopping the spread of Covid is not the be-all and end-all of existence.
Aside from the monstrous pollution they inflict on the world, masks make life horribly difficult for anyone with hearing difficulties — who is rendered unable to lip-read — and often for those with conditions such as dementia, autism and schizophrenia, who rely on seeing people’s faces: as indeed all humans do.