French MPs recommend more use of washable masks as pollution concerns rise

Given that no waste remains the best option, the two rapporteurs are calling for promoting the use of reusable masks for the general public. [Angelina Bambina_Shutterstock]

Faced with the boom of single-use masks in France, the country’s National Assembly set up a “flash mission” on the topic and concluded that wearing washable facemasks should be recommended to the public. EURACTIV France reports.

In the space of a few months, the mask has become an essential part of everyday life in France. As millions of French wear one for the day and throw it away at night, it has become quite the environmental scourge, despite being a health ally.

According to the Agency for the diffusion of technological information (Adit), between 6.8 and 13.7 billion single-use masks will have been used in France in 2020.

Since they cannot be recycled, they accumulate – at best in our dustbins, at worst in the oceans. Faced with this new source of pollution, National Assembly lawmakers are calling for increased use of reusable masks for the general public.

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Exponential pollution

During the presentation of the conclusions of their flash mission, the two rapporteurs, Danielle Brulebois from President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) and Gérard Leseul from the socialist group Soc, shared their concerns regarding the masks that represented a deposit of 40,000 tonnes of non-recycled waste in 2020.

“All stages of the life cycle of masks are sources of pollution,” the rapporteurs noted in their summary.

“Their production requires the extraction of oil; their manufacture and transport have a considerable carbon footprint. When properly collected with household waste, masks end up being incinerated or landfilled, which is no longer acceptable. Unfortunately, they are also thrown on the ground and into the wilderness, where they risk being washed into rainwater systems,” the rapporteurs said.

However, although fines for disposing of masks in the wild have already been increased and can now go up to €135, the issue of recycling waste is far from being resolved.

The most widely used surgical masks consist of a metal nose bridge, elastics, and, above all, the infamous polypropylene plastic. Yet, because they are very light, they risk jamming the machines of today’s sorting lines.

“For the moment, there is no recycling line in France dedicated to single-use masks,” co-rapporteur Danielle Brulebois told EURACTIV France.

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Complex recycling

For three weeks, the two rapporteurs questioned various researchers, elected officials, industrialists, and association members about mask recycling.

In their report, they identified several inspiring local initiatives. For example, the city of Tour has set up, in partnership with the company NeutraliZ, a hundred or so collectors for single-use masks. These are then decontaminated and recycled through various channels: textile, automotive, construction.

According to Brulebois, developing solutions on a local scale is preferable, because for the moment “setting up a national recycling network does not seem to be either necessary or optimal”.

“Will as many masks be thrown away in a few years, so that we can consider setting up a dedicated recycling chain? That would be too costly and very unprofitable,” she added.

However, given that no waste remains the best option, the two rapporteurs are calling for promoting the use of reusable masks for the general public.

The MPs refer in particular to the latest opinion of the High Council of Public Health, which recommended on 20 January that category 1 masks, both industrial and “reusable fabric” masks, should be worn when confronted with the new COVID-variants.

The MPs are thus calling on the government, health authorities, and local authorities to address this issue “through a clear and accessible message” or by providing reusable masks to its members “to set an example”.

Encouraging the general public to wash their surgical masks 

Another issue – the washing of surgical masks – was the subject of many questions. Last April, a consortium of researchers – members of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), Inserm and Anses – demonstrated that surgical masks maintain their performance even “after ten washes at 60°C with detergent”, the MPs recalled.

So, why not encourage the French to wash their surgical masks?

This time, the obstacle is regulatory. As defined by the public health code, the surgical mask is still considered today as a strictly medical and single-use accessory, preventing manufacturers from specifying on the packaging the possibility of washing and reusing one’s mask.

According to the rapporteurs, however, a new status would make it possible to alleviate this problem and ultimately reduce the waste’s environmental impact.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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