The Borneo Post (Sabah)
Ensure safe disposal of used face masks
THE origin of the novel human coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) many years ago and since Covid19 swept across and ravaged the world, and in an effort to contain this unprecedented outbreak, face masks have become a necessity thereby calling for the urgent prevention and control of the pandemic.
While face masks are now an essential part of the community’s personal protective equipment, it is imperative to pay serious attention when disposing of them after use. This matter is now urgent, given the fact that more and more people are using face masks in public places
An increase in the use of disposable masks is creating negative impacts on our environment as evidenced by piles of discarded face masks found near the coasts of most countries such as the United States, France, Mainland China, and Taiwan.
In a study by Greenpeace Taiwan, during the peak of Covid-19 pandemic, from early February to mid May 2020, Taiwan produced and used roughly 1.3 billion surgical masks. Assuming each face mask weighs 4 grams, that’s 5,500 metric tonnes of general waste generated within a span of three months. Isn’t it scary?
To make matters worse, used face masks are “unrecyclable” due to the fact that they may be contaminated and could potentially lead to indirect infection and viral transmission if they enter the recycle system.
Face masks that were used by hospitals or other medical facilities are handled by class-A waste management companies, and disposed masks that are contaminated will be treated separately. As there are existing mechanisms overseeing the disposal of medical waste, used surgical masks from medical facilities are well supervised. However, the face masks that were worn by the general public fall into a grey area between “general waste” and “medical waste”.
When it comes to disposing of them, the face masks are either thrown in public rubbish bins or worse – discarded indiscriminately in back lanes or into drains. Experts say that improperly discarded masks, especially those that are soiled or have respiratory secretions on them, could be potential health hazards should others come into contact with them.
Hence it is important to pay serious attention when disposing of them after use. To dispose of used masks, one must first fold them up and place them in small plastic bags, before dumping them into public garbage bins.
Discarded face masks pose 4 major risks that could cause environmental and social impacts:
1. Discarded face masks pose social and environmental risks, both short-term and longterm. It is a known fact that the chemicals contained in the masks are a potential threat to our environment. In addition to non-woven fabric and activated carbon, medical face masks also contain large amounts of polypropylene , which is a type of commodity plastic that takes a long time to degrade and releases a lot of toxic substances during the process. As all face masks sold on the market must go through rigorous quality testing, it’s fair to assume that these masks won’t break down easily, and their disposal will only create negative impacts on our environment and ecosystems.
2. Discarded face masks can become floating marine debris and impact the marine ecosystems. If left unaddressed, those face masks might be mistaken by some marine animals for food. Moreover, plastic particles released from the degradation of those face masks will also remain in the oceans and build up in the food chain for years to come, eventually becoming a detriment to human health.
3. Rivers and mountainous areas may become dumping grounds, which not only could hinder our pandemic response efforts to properly dispose of single-use masks, but also wreak havoc on wildlife.
4. From a social risk perspective, a spike in the amount of disposed waste might lead to an increase in the demand for incinerator capacity. In the past, there have been instances of local residents protesting against waste incinerator. If we are facing the need of building new incinerators, whether it is for general or medical waste, they will not be welcomed by any neighbourhood. At this point, it’s almost impossible to trace the sources of discarded face masks that have escaped into the environment, and it’s equally difficult to deploy preventive measures.
Indiscriminate disposal of masks will surely have a negative effect on the environment, especially on marine life, when they find their way to rivers and seas. It could lead to clogged drains, with their attendant consequences.
The authority and civic minded non-governmental organisations concerned must do more educational campaigns to educate the public on the proper ways to dispose of the masks, not only in public places, but also at homes.
The question is how many will follow such advice.
As second wave of Covid19 has penetrated our life worldwide, and in preparation for future pandemics, it is imperative to identify solutions to manage these adverse effects.
If educational and awareness campaigns do not work, the authorities should consider legislation to discourage irresponsible behaviour or punish recalcitrant offenders in the interest of public health.