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Media failed to highlight negative impact of single-use facemasks on the environment – new research

27 Oct 2023 3 minute read
Teacher wearing a face mask. Photo by Alexandra Koch from Pixabay

New research from a team at Bangor University has concluded that print media failed to highlight the negative impact of single-use facemasks on the environment during the Covid pandemic.

According to the research, how facemasks were referred to and reported on in print may have inadvertently encouraged more people to use disposable face coverings over cloth ones.

Writing in Frontiers in Communication, a multidisciplinary team from Bangor has shown how media messaging could have determined people’s mask-wearing choices during the pandemic.

This was based on a qualitative and quantitative review of British and Irish press coverage mentioning masks and face coverings between March 2020 and December 2021.

The results demonstrate how newspaper journalism favoured single-use surgical masks but overwhelmingly failed to report on their environmental impact and lack of waste management.

Environmental impact

The paper discusses how the environmental impact of single-use masks or face coverings is an under-considered effect associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not just what’s reported that has an effect, but the way in which it is reported,” explained first author, Dr Anaïs Augé.

“What we found was that the word ‘masks’ was used predominantly to mean disposable face masks, while the media used ‘face-coverings’ to refer to homemade or shop-bought material masks.

“They also predominantly used the word ‘mask’ while discussing mandatory wearing of face coverings, and the term ‘face-covering‘ where there was an element of option.

“This was despite the UK government predominantly using masks to refer to masks used by health professionals and face-coverings as a term used for what everyone else should be wearing to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Materials scientist Dr Morwenna Spear added: “Despite scientific discussion of the safety provided by reusable face-coverings, and the waste associated with single-use masks already in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, little of this was presented in newspapers.”

Prof. Thora Tenbrink concluded: “The increase in waste can be related to prevailing representations of single-use surgical masks and limited attention paid to environmental concerns.

“We think our work casts further doubt on the role of newspapers in effectively conveying the information needed to enable the public to make informed choices.”




The research grew out of the £426,513 Arts and Humanities Research Council project Between environmental concerns and compliance: How does media messaging affect motivation and choice between disposable versus reusable facemasks?, led by Prof. Nathan Abrams.

It was awarded to explore the complex factors underpinning consumer choice of masks and the adoption or rejection of facemask wearing, including the responsible disposal of masks.

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7 months ago

Far better to highlight that ffp2 and up were a far better option, and still are, unless the cloth mask met the same requirement I think.

I don’t think you can rely on newspapers (especially the toxic ones like mail etc.) when a government was off the rails, many of the pressers I saw at No10 was more about press gotcha’s rather than informing people. The press and No10 briefings were a mess.

7 months ago

The message that was really missed is that the masks were never for the protection of those wearing them. The masks were to limit airborne transmission via the wearer’s breath. They were meant to protect everyone else from you, not to protect you from everyone else. Masks like N95 masks do filter particulates to attempt to protect the wearer, but they have to be fitted correctly or they’re useless for that purpose. That includes things like having a proper nose seal, having the right sized mask, shaving all facial hair, etc. That simply wasn’t necessary for Joe Average doing his… Read more »

7 months ago
Reply to  blc

...the best thing the majority of us could have done was to wear a face covering and practice social distancing… and that seems to have been beyond so many daft or selfish people in this country.

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