14 August 2020



PPE adding to litter and waste problems


arc21, the resource and waste management body for six local councils, including Antrim & Newtownabbey, is urging the public to use reusable cloth face coverings if possible to help protect the environment during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Although demand for Single Use Plastic in consumer products such as disposable coffee cups has fallen in recent years, arc21 is concerned that progress may be undermined by the impact of the pandemic. This has created demand for billions of disposable PPE items in the UK alone and prompted health concerns which have increased demand for non-recyclable plastic such as fresh food plastic-wrapping.


arc21 believes that switching from disposable to reusable face masks could help reduce demand for single use plastic and avoid the growing litter problem caused by disposable masks which are potentially contaminated with COVID-19.


The World Health Organisation has said that global production of PPE will increase by 40% to cope with the demands of the pandemic.


Tim Walker, arc21’s acting CEO, said:


“In line with Government advice we’re encouraging the public to strongly consider using reusable rather than disposable face coverings.


Single use plastic was already a major environmental headache before the pandemic, creating litter in our streets and waterways. It is disappointing that potentially contaminated disposable masks are now adding to that problem.


The thrust of environmental policy is to reduce waste at source, increase recycling and move away from our unhealthy dependency on landfill and exporting waste overseas. Given that some single use plastic items are unavoidable due to health concerns, it’s even more important than ever that we all think carefully about choosing environmentally friendly solutions when possible.


Single use plastic is a local and global problem with recent reports suggesting that the amount of plastic waste in our oceans will triple to 600m tonnes by 2040. Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful has also reported that 78% of the 3m items littering our coastline are plastic. Adding contaminated PPE to this mix would be an environmental calamity.”


arc21 also highlighted international economic and political factors which are exacerbating Northern Ireland’s “plastic problem”. A slump in economic activity and oil prices has made it cheaper to manufacture some items from new rather than recycled plastics. Overseas markets such as China have also drastically reduced their demand for recycled plastic from the UK in recent years.


The health crisis has further highlighted a lack of facilities in Northern Ireland to treat contaminated waste. At present it is exported to Co. Meath for incineration.


Mr Walker added:


“The days of simply exporting our plastic problem overseas are coming to an end. That’s good news for the global environment, but it means that we need to take more responsibility for the waste we produce and use locally.


Northern Ireland has made major strides in improving its recycling habits, but we need to go further. In order to meet Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050, businesses and individuals need to fundamentally change the way they consume and use raw materials, embrace a circular economy and move towards a truly zero waste society.


Although Government advice is that reusable cups and containers can still be used as long as they are thoroughly cleaned in hot soapy water, the pandemic has brought into sharp focus society’s reliance on non-recyclable plastic and our lack of home-grown waste infrastructure to handle contaminated material.”



Notes To Editors



arc21 is an umbrella waste management group in Northern Ireland representing six councils (Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough Council, Belfast City Council, Ards & North Down Borough Council, Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and Newry, Mourne & Down District Council).


arc21 helps, supports and assists its constituent councils meet their household waste management obligations. The core function of arc21 is to procure significant services from the private sector as required by the constituent councils and act as the contracting authority.


arc21’s focus is on Reducing, Re-using and Recycling, and – for material which can’t be recycled or composted – ‘Recovery’. This approach follows the waste hierarchy and represents best practice in the sector. To support Recovery arc21 has proposed a suite of modern infrastructure at Hightown which includes the island’s largest recycling facility and an Energy from Waste plant to treat household waste which can’t be recycled.



NI Executive Face Covering advice

WHO calls on industry and governments to increase manufacturing by 40 per cent to meet rising global demand

Breaking the Plastic Wave – Pathways to stopping ocean plastic pollution: Pew Charitable Trusts

Marine Lp northitter Report – Keep NI Beautiful

UK Government Covid-19 Advice – Reusable cups and containers