European Parliament criticised over use of COVID-19 disposable masks

NGO attacks Parliament for promoting use of ‘untraceable, disposable, toxic and unrecyclable’ single-use masks.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

02 Apr 2021

The European Parliament’s authorities have been accused of flouting their own environmental goals over the use of disposable masks for MEPs and staff.

The institution may also not be providing the “necessary safety and security standards”, it has been alleged.

David Sassoli, the Parliament’s President, has been challenged over the obligation of using disposable face masks within the assembly’s premises.

Zero Waste Europe, a Brussels based NGO, has questioned the type of masks deemed acceptable by the Parliament. The guidance only accepts disposable masks but the NGO, instead, recommends a circular, reusable mask system.

It says this will guarantee the safety of all MEPs and staff members but, unlike disposable masks, is far more environmental friendly.

Their concerns are voiced in a letter send to Sassoli this week.

The group’s Executive Director, Joan Marc Simon explained, “A circular mask is a mask that respects the principles of the circular economy and sustainability: it's made of safe and sustainable materials and can be reused, thus preventing the generation of waste in the first place.

“Disposable masks, such as the ones that the European Parliament is instructing in their guidance, are often the complete opposite of this.”

“We are not saying that the mandatory use of masks within parliament’s premises is a bad idea - it's a legitimate, necessary, health and safety-ensuring one given the current COVID-19 crisis. The issue lies in the type of masks deemed acceptable by the Parliament.”

“We are not saying that the mandatory use of masks within parliament’s premises is a bad idea - it's a legitimate, necessary, health and safety-ensuring one given the current COVID-19 crisis. The issue lies in the type of masks deemed acceptable by the Parliament” Zero Waste Europe Executive Director, Joan Marc Simon

The NGO says that disposable masks “are created with hazardous materials and often fail to meet the health and safety criteria sought by the Parliament.”

A statement adds, “There are existing circular, reusable, certified masks systems in place in Europe, also being used by entities hosting large numbers of people every day. When there are alternatives that offer at least the same level of protection as disposable masks, there's no reason to go disposable - especially when the institution has policies for the outside world that advocate in this concrete direction.”

Simon said, “This proposal carries two significant environmental risks. The first is the direct generation of waste by the European Parliament. The second is the bad example this institution is setting for Europeans, rather than inspiring citizens to do the right thing and showing that it is possible to tackle the COVID-19 crisis in a sustainable way.

“When there are alternatives that are at least as safe as the disposable options, priority should be given to reusable solutions.”

As well as Sassoli the letter has been sent to parliament’s Secretary General Klaus Welle.

It states,”We appreciate that your institution is taking the fight against the COVID-19 virus seriously. We are, however, concerned about one of the recent measures that the European Parliament is implementing in the name of safety – the obligation to use disposable medical masks. Your decision will not only produce lots of unnecessary waste, contrary to the Parliament’s environmental goals; but these masks may actually also not provide that maximum level of safety you are looking for.”

“MEPs and personnel are required to use disposable medical face masks or disposable FFP2 masks, which presumably follow standard safety and breathability requirements. However, besides the unnecessary 12,000 kg/year of non recyclable waste that we estimate this measure will produce, there are additional obvious problems that we would like to point out.”

The letter to Sassoli asks, “How will the parliament verify compliance with standards?”

“There are currently a good number of scandals around medical face masks and FFP2 masks in Europe, with masks which are often produced outside Europe failing to comply with the necessary safety standards. For instance, in Italy it is estimated that one in ten masks fails to meet the required certification standards.”

“100 percent of staff are teleworking and only a very limited number of staff are physically present at the Parliament’s premises” European Parliament Spokesman

The NGO states, “We believe that the approach that the parliament is taking with this measure contradicts the policies that the house has approved by overwhelming majorities. On February 10, the European Parliament, with 574 votes in favour, asked the European Commission to ensure that “products placed on the EU market perform well, are durable, reusable, can be easily repaired, are not toxic, can be upgraded and recycled.”

It tells Sassoli and Welle, “In contrast, you are proposing a solution that promotes untraceable, disposable, toxic, unrecyclable masks to fight the pandemic, using a single-use logic that has put our ecosystems and biodiversity at risk and indirectly led to the ongoing sanitary crisis. We believe this to be a double-standard which shows little commitment to your own policies and is a poor example to society.”

“The system you are implementing remains far away from state of the art, sustainable solutions that provide proper safety while ensuring circularity. One does not have to exclude the other.”

The NGO says there are “alternative solutions that would serve as a role model. “We believe circular, reusable masks systems are the best way for the parliament to walk the talk of its policies, and show the way forward to millions of EU citizens and beyond.”

On Friday, a Parliament spokesman responded to the criticism by telling this website,”Parliament's medical service advised for an upgrade of the mask requirements in order to reinforce the protection of members and staff as part of its duty of care.”

"The President took the decision to make mandatory as of 8 March 2021 to wear a medical face mask on parliament’s premises after having considered the situation broadly and with the aim of ensuring the business continuity of the House and its budgetary and legislative core functions in line with the treaties.”

The spokesman also pointed out that, currently, “100 percent of staff are teleworking and only a very limited number of staff are physically present at the Parliament’s premises.”

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