Saving the Planet One Mask at a Time


Nothing has brought out the worst piousness and virtue signalling in certain sections of society like Covid. These latter-day self-styled saints have shown their do-goodery by wearing their sacrifice like a hair shirt, wilfully oblivious to the collateral damages of Covid restrictions, lockdowns and shifting human behavioural patterns.

As COP26 gathers together to decide for civilisation how society will change, the huge environmental collateral of Covid is but a whisper, something we shouldn’t mention because, you know, it’s not relevant. But let’s dig into that relevance…

Whilst 30,000 delegates evade all the rules you and I are expected to follow slavishly, they will be creating new ones for us, ones they will of course be exempt from, like vaccine passports.

What’s even more relevant at COP26 but unacknowledged, is the enormous harm done daily over the past 2 years, to an already fragile ecological system. A system so delicate and so on the edge of societal calamity, we must all immediately change the way we live, except when it comes to COVID. Because COVID is now its own eco system and any challenge to collateral damage is dismissed as conspiracy or heresy. Even when all the statistics are analysed, nothing trumps saving Granny.

Many disagree. Many climate change and environmental scientists are horrified at the massive impact COVID is having on the environment that we are all supposed to be working so hard to save, but they are closed down, silenced by the greater good. Even whilst Boris rolls out his £2 trillion Green boilers and China refires up its coal mines, the real damage, the daily damage is being overlooked. My Grandfather used to say, “take care of the pennies and the £’s will take care of themselves”. I now say the same thing in relation to our environment:

“Take care of the millions of little problems and the big ones will take care of themselves”

At the beginning of lockdown environmentalists were keen to point out that CO2 emissions would be greatly reduced. We weren’t driving, flying or outputting from factories. This was great they said, but looking at the detail, the 6.4% dip in carbon emissions during the early part of the lockdowns returned to pre Covid levels quickly as the world got back to normal. This will register as little more than a momentary blip on the carbon measurement graph.

Then there’s plastics. According to the International Solid Waste Association there has been a 300% increase in the use of single use plastics compared to pre pandemic figures. Approximately 130 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic latex gloves are used globally every month. With China manufacturing over 116 million disposable face masks a day, about 12 times more than before Covid according to experts Bradsher and Swanson in their 2020 report. The number of disposable face masks used per day has reached over 7 billion.

Packaging material production and use has also increased exponentially, as more and more people have taken to ordering their requirements online, increasing freight globally, which in turn increases CO2 output, oil use and of course electricity. But this massive growth has also resulted in an increase in the use of single use plastics, in the online industry alone by 40% and 17% within the medical industry. The global packaging market is set to grow from $909.2 billion to over $1,012.billion in 2021. PPE, plastic packaging for food and groceries for home deliveries, during lockdown and then beyond, has made some businesses very wealthy whilst they waive their not so green credentials.

Single use plastics, already one of the major contributors to marine litter (particularly single use masks) from the UK alone will have increased to over 60,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste per day. Add to that the massive increase in disposable antibiotic wipes, microfibre, disposable feet protection, head caps, plastic film protectors for seats, payment machines and hand rails – all replaced daily – and the increase in non-recyclable waste is staggering.

Once littered in open environments, that which doesn’t reach the sea is simply left to rot in the open air, becoming a hazard to not only wildlife, but also blocking sewage systems in towns and cities and contaminating soils and agricultural environments in developing countries, who are less able to manage the clear up. These disposable human safety nets will eventually breakdown into micro plastics ending up on our plates.

And then there’s the huge increase in chemical disinfectants, all to keep us safe, yet all the while poisoning our water and air quality as determined by Gracia-Avila et al. 2020. They underline the ongoing danger of halogenated organic compounds that are toxic, not only to marine life but also to humans.

According to the WHO, the short-term management of COVID will have long-term damaging effects on our living environment. The collateral fallout of lockdowns has meant that recycling has all but stopped, meaning vast quantities of plastics and chemicals have simply been dumped in already damaging landfill and covered over, in the hope that it will go away. In many areas of the USA the sorting of recycling has been stopped completely, in order to try and prevent the handling of potentially virus laden plastics, even though the evidence shows that transmission is miniscule from inanimate objects.

According to a WWF report, over 10 million disposable masks are finding their way into the natural environment on the wind monthly, adding approximately 40,000KG of man-made toxins to the land and taking up to 500 years to breakdown.

But that’s not all, within hospital, clinic, walk-in centre vaccine environments the increase in plastic and rubber residue, sharps and glass bottles could be as much as 30 billion items. The burden generated in developing countries is so large as to be unmanageable. The urgent race to vaccinate the globe has led to an unprecedented amount of industrial waste material, without any guidance or monitoring or measuring of how this should be disposed of.

To top it all off, companies with refill policies and bring-your-own-bags policies have suspended them, reverting to disposable variants of both, moving from progression to regression at an alarming pace. In addition the growth in online ordering has increased logging for cardboard paper and packaging materials, clearing vast swathes of forest land, increasing domestic waste both organic and inorganic and devastating landscapes, so we don’t have to venture out to the shops.

There are no guidelines for the public on the disposal of masks and other PPE, nor are there industry incentives to recycle ethically and carefully. In fact, it’s an utter free for all, even the UK government PPE procurement has forgone normal slavery checks and abandoned all sense of environmental responsibility. The vast quantity of PPE found along river banks, water courses and in delicate environments is beyond catastrophic, with no plan to clear up or depollute. There are no public contamination bins in towns and communal spaces to dispose of masks and no government or organisation has taken responsibility for setting out a policy to deal with the impending disaster. We are all too busy saving ourselves.

So, whilst the great and the good at COP26 plan how our taxes will be increased to save the planet, maybe they could open their eyes and take a look at the little things. Those things that we can all individually and collectively do something about, the millions of tonnes of waste and consumerism we think is helping to save populations will be for nothing if we destroy the planet we profess we want to save, but not as much as we want to save ourselves.

Corruption, profit, opportunity and stupidity will always rule the world, it’s time to call it out at COP26.

Bernie Spofforth is an experienced Managing Director and investor with a background including board and CEO roles, NASDAQ, FMCG, IP, patents, global manufacturing and the Grey market. You can follow her on Twitter here.