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POST-COVID ECONOMY

France to tackle public ‘preference’ for disposable face masks

Demand for reusable face masks spiked as France emerged from nearly two months of confinement to stop the spread of Covid-19, but has since fallen as many companies and individuals opt for disposable imported masks.
Demand for reusable face masks spiked as France emerged from nearly two months of confinement to stop the spread of Covid-19, but has since fallen as many companies and individuals opt for disposable imported masks. © Christophe ARCHAMBAULT. AFP

France’s government said Monday it would work with the country’s textile industry to reduce the widespread use of disposable imported face masks and promote French-made, washable masks as better environmental and economic options.  

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French textile manufactuers sold some 25 million reusable protective face masks in the first weeks after the end of confinement measures to stop the spread of Covid-19, as companies and public services strove to equip their buildings and spaces. 

“At first, everything was sold, there was a very strong and immediate demand,” says Guillaume Gibault, whose company Le Slip Français, specialising in made-in-France undergarments, began making masks during the confinement period.

But four weeks later, disposable imported face masks are flourishing while French-made reusable masks languish in boxes. 

“They [disposables] were more readily available” for many buyers, Gibault notes. Since French-made masks are a new market, “not everyone necessarily knew about what was available around them, and the public didn’t necessarily know where or what to buy.”

Changing behaviour

Gibault is part of a group of entrepreneurs that met at the French economy ministry on Monday to discuss how to promote France’s fledgling market for domestically produced, reusable face masks.

“The goal is to convince major buyers to shift from disposable masks to washable and reusable textile masks,” junior economy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said prior to the meeting.  

“We have a product that’s environmentally friendly with the best value,” she said, but adding “nonetheless it’s not enough to convert large companies to use these masks, they prefer the surgical masks imported from China.” 

Pannier-Runacher said she understood employers and trade unions were reluctant to shift too quickly into a market that did not exist three months ago. But her office said the image of the mask had to change as well. 

“The French prefer single-use surgical masks,” officials in the economy ministry told newspaper Le Parisien. “In the collective mind, they are more reassuring than textile masks.”

Timeline 

Gibault’s company was one of some 450 textile firms to begin producing reusable masks as the coronavirus epidemic began, mainly with an initial objective to have them ready for use when confinement began to be lifted. 

“Companies and public services did what they could to find masks to have them ready for 11 May,” he says. 

“Some bought washable, made-in-France masks, but many more bought imported disposable masks. Now the idea is to get companies and public bodies to turn to supplies made in France for the next round of orders.” 

Doing so has meant building a market that did not exist three months ago, setting up an industry website for placing orders and communicating on how reusable masks are both more environmentally and economically friendly than disposable masks.

Disposable masks have environmental cost

Some environmental groups have warned about the proliferation of disposable masks, wipes, bottles and other single-use products as workplaces and public services sought to equip themselves for the post-confinement period. 

“Disposable products give the appearance of safety and hygiene, but for us, it’s a false sense of security, when the most important are the preventative gestures like hand washing,” says Flore Berlingen, director of Zero Waste France

“They’re also deceptive, because they seem clean, but the production behind them is very polluting, creating mid- to long-term environmental and health risks, notably for populations around factories producing plastics.” 

Berlingen says the environment ministry, which implemented a ban on single-use plastics this year, is aware of issues around disposable products, and hopes the rest of the government will adopt more pollution-limiting practices. 

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