With the world experiencing a global COVID 19 pandemic, India has formulated a set of regulations to prevent the further spread of the infectious disease. It has been made mandatory by the Central government to wear a face mask or any face covering and maintain social distancing at all times when in public. Although wearing a face mask is compulsory, the reckless disposal of them is not.
With the current rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases, the number of masks being demanded, manufactured and purchased is increasing too. Many people are using a face mask with a respirator for air to pass through, like the N95 respirator masks, some are using disposable masks like the surgical mask, and some are using a homemade mask like a cloth mask on a regular basis. Despite being ordered to wear a face mask, little to no guidance about their safe disposal is being provided. The importance of proper disposal of the masks needs to be actively discussed and the hazards caused by this improper method of disposal is prominent.
Masks have unfortunately been found littered carelessly around streets, public grounds, market areas, beaches and in the sea bodies by garbage collectors. Volunteers of Lives with Less Plastic (LLP) cleaning up empty lots have found over 50 tossed disposable masks and sanitary wipes. It’s estimated the global use and disposal of masks and gloves will amount to 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves for every month of the COVID-19 pandemic. The large population of India is anyways very inconsiderate about the cleanliness of their country, negligently disposing hazardous materials like polythene and plastic all over the local streets, so it was no surprise when Prime Minister Modi had rightly launched the Swachh Bharat campaign to clean up India.
How are poorly disposed masks harmful?
The initial threat of discarded single-use masks is that they may be contaminated with the respiratory secretions of an infected person, thus spreading the infectious germs when other people like garbage cleaners or the general public come in contact with it. Furthermore, most of these masks are manufactured from durable plastic materials, and if carelessly discarded, can linger in the environment for a long period of time. The long term degeneration of plastic is harmful to the environment, animals and plants. Plastic takes years to decompose, and while it does, secretes high-risk toxins into the environment. These toxins are often long-lived toxic polymers that integrate into food chains, ultimately reaching humans. One mask is capable of producing millions of these toxins, disturbing the existing ecosystems, many times completely destroying them. According to the UN News, if historical data is a reliable indicator, it can be expected that around 75 per cent of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas. Aside from the environmental damage, the financial cost, in areas such as tourism and fisheries, is estimated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at around $40 billion.
The Australian Government has made wearing masks mandatory in the second most populated city, Melbourne, and has secured an additional 54 million face masks to help protect medical professionals working to stop the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. Animals and birds have recently been found tangled in these discarded masks. Only last month, a seagull was found caught in the ear loops of a disposable face mask in Essex. They do not have the understanding to avoid such materials and get trapped for hours on end, in the ear loops of the single use masks. They have been found injured, starved and killed in such situations. The marine life is dreadfully affected by the disposal of these masks. Many small and large fishes, sharks, whales and other aquatic creatures have been found dead because of choking on a plastic bag or ingesting it.
How do we put a stop to this?
In March, the World Health Organization estimated that 89 million additional disposable masks were required globally per month to combat the infection coronavirus. However, it was found that need and use for these disposable masks could be controlled by each person simply using a self-made, homemade mask of cloth. In research conducted by the University College London, it was found that reusable masks with no filters that could be washed in a machine, generated the least amount of plastic waste.
Here are a few tips to reduce environmental overload:-
- Use reusable cloth masks that can be made and disinfected at home.
- Avoid using masks that have respirator (air filter) since they are made of plastic and add to the burden of non-recyclable waste.
- While hand washing the masks seemed like a better option than machine washing them, hand washing uses more amount of water and cleansing solution for each mask. Thus, machine wash these reusable masks.
- If a disposable surgical mask is used, make sure to cut the ear loops before correctly disposing of it. This lowers the risk of birds or animals getting caught in them.
- Most importantly, if a disposable face mask is used, dispose or discard it safely straight into a trash bin. No mask shall be discarded anywhere else other than a garbage bin.
- Do not throw these disposable masks in the recycling bin as they might be contaminated and are a threat. The material of these masks also mess up the recycling equipment and should not be recycled.
There is yet a lack of options for recyclable face masks for the people to use. In March, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology university, KAIST, announced that it had successfully created reusable filters that can then be washed while maintaining efficacy similar to the disposable surgical mask. In April, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University announced the launch of facial protection equipment that could be reused after being disinfected.
Only time will tell if any sustainable alternatives to disposable masks, gloves and PPE items will manage to reach the general public. Until then, environmental associations like the LIBERA initiative said, "It is normal that the coronavirus crisis has reordered some priorities, but the principles are non-negotiable. Therefore, our fight against waste and commitment to responsible production and consumption, as well as a recycling that contributes to the reduction of the over-exploitation of raw materials, is as strong as ever."