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Hemp face masks can help curb plastic pollution, company says

Sunday, September 20th 2020, 11:49 am - Disposable plastic masks that end up in the oceans could take up to 450 years to decompose

LEZINNES, France (Reuters) - Inside a factory south of Paris, a laser cuts through a hemp canvas on the production line of what the manufacturer says is Europe's first compostable face mask.

Geochanvre pitches the hemp masks, priced at around one euro each, as a means to reduce the mountain of plastic waste from single-use protective gear that environmentalists say will take centuries to decompose and is already polluting the oceans.

Governments, healthcare providers and corporations have collectively bought hundreds of billions of single-use face masks, gloves and other protective gear to protect their staff and citizens amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's heresy not to ban polyethylene products, materials that are shipped to all corners of the world. Use local agricultural materials," Frederic Roure, the founding president of Geochanvre, told Reuters. "This is a natural product and will go back into the soil."

Hemp's properties mean that no other products are needed to ensure the mask acts as an effective filter. The lining includes a corn blend to bring some added comfort, and the elastic band is recyclable.

REUTERS hemp face masks in France A worker manipulates pieces of fiber canvas made from hemp to make compostable face masks at French company Geochanvre in Lezinnes, France, September 10, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Bails of hemp fibre are passed through compressors and over rollers before emerging as hard-packed flat sheets, ready to be cut into face mask panels that are then folded by hand.

Customers, mostly from Europe and Canada, have so far bought 1.5 million hemp masks from the company since March.

Worldwide, an estimated 129 billion single-use face masks and 65 billion gloves are used every month, according to a study in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. Most single-use protective gear is made from plastics including polypropylene, polythene and vinyl.

Disposable plastic masks that end up in the oceans could take up to 450 years to decompose, according to Waste Free oceans.

(Reporting by Yiming Woo; Editing by Richard Lough and Janet Lawrence)

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