What is the immediate reaction when you see a face mask recklessly thrown by someone, lying in the middle of the road as you walk back home, or the one that got blown away by the wind to sit nicely in the corner of your apartment building, fluttering occasionally, softly requesting you to pick it up and dispose it off properly?
As a responsible citizen, you would do what is the best-pick it up and put it in the bin. Isn’t it? But no, in this case, you won’t. Because of the fear that is may still be harbouring someone’s virus-loaded breath and that the virus may reach your house, infecting your loved ones. So, you choose not to. But why throw it like this in the first place?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that ‘masks should be used as part of a comprehensive ‘Do it all!’ approach that includes physical distancing, avoiding crowded, closed and close-contact settings, maintaining good ventilation, frequent washing of hands, covering sneezes and coughs, and more’. As the world celebrated World Environment Day 2021 with the theme ‘Ecosystem Restoration’, another crucial dimension has been added to the battle against the pandemic-the pollution caused by the face masks.
The countries world over are gradually reopening their operations to sustain their economies, and more people are coming out for work and various economic activities, the projected requirement of face masks is going up every day, further adding to the already growing concern. In addition to the already enormous quantities of biomedical waste that is getting generated from the hospitals in treating the sick, not to forget the chemical pollution caused by having to disinfect constantly, the concern over disposal and handling of the face masks, has invited attention from all over.
Some facts: According to a recent study, the world uses 130 billion masks per month, 3 million a minute, or 50,000 every second (approximations used). A surgical mask mainly consists of three layers-outer (translucent) hydrophobic non-woven layer, middle (white) melt-blown layer, and an inner soft absorbent non-woven layer (green, blue, or white). However, the major material used in these masks as well as N95 masks is-polypropylene, also known as ‘plastic’ in common parlance.The small, yet often missed component like the ear loops also are made up of similar indecomposable material.
Common disposal: The most common ways of mask disposal are disposing into the household trash bin, disposing into hazardous waste bin; throwing away recklessly on the streets. Due to the indecomposable nature of masks, this poses further threat to the environment. Burning away the masks may result in future global warming issue and has a potential to contaminate air by releasing adverse compounds into the atmosphere. Some people are also flushing the masks in the toilets, and needless to say, it has its own complications of choking the drains and subsequent hygiene issues.
What happens then: This indecomposable micro-plastic enters the food chains via ingestions by animals which eventually enters the major food web of human existence. It also results in bioaccumulation of toxins in the open environment. Improperly disposed facemasks reach the water bodies, affects the microbial habitat and the environmental processes of the aquatic ecosystems. Researchers have further suggested that this acts as a medium for further outbreaking of COVID-19 since the particles tends to proliferate microbes and disseminate in the food chain. Industrial production of masks also adds to the global warming scenario and resultant climate change.
So, what can be done: The recent reports say that the large corporations in many countries are carrying out extensive R&D to find out better ways of handling the mask issue, like adoption of a sustainable approach of using natural plant fiber for mask production. Upcycling the mask waste to produce construction materials, selling the shredded and sorted microplastic to local plastic manufacturing firms that can produce products such as engine oil, textile, footwears, concrete additives, outdoor furniture, storage containers etc., are also being considered. Few international universities are working on producing masks from biomass material and agricultural waste.
We, as responsible inhabitants of the beautiful mother earth can contribute our bit in making the planet a better place to live. Here’s a list of small things we all can do:
1. Choosing sensibly: Choosing to buy masks made from organic, biodegradable materials; using reusable face masks without disposable filters.
2. Washing: Washing fabric masks in soap or detergent and preferably hot water (at least 60 degrees Centigrade/140 degrees Fahrenheit) at least once a day or washing it in soap/detergent at room temperature water, followed by boiling the mask for 1 minute.
3. Preparing for contingency: Carrying an extra one (packed properly to avoid contamination), so that if something goes wrong with the one in use, like breaking of loop or accidental falling on the ground, you will not need to buy the disposable one at that moment.
4. Disposal: If at all a single-use disposable mask is used, taking it home and putting it into a bin with a lid. If this isn’t possible, place it in a proper public bin.
5. No flushing: Not flushing disposable masks, or for that matter, any mask down the toilet.
6. Supervising: Guiding and supervising our children, especially near the beaches and water bodies so that they do not throw away the masks in the water for fun activities. Education begins at home.
7. Making our own mask: If one has extra scrapes lying around, have time and want to save money as well as environment, it is relatively simple to make your own mask at home. As per WHO recommendations, fabric masks should be made of three layers of fabric. More details on how to check for filtration, breathability and fit when choosing a fabric mask, are available at the WHO website (www.who.int).
8. Gifting & presenting: One can always sew a face mask matching with the outfit, making a fashion statement. Making masks out of bright and attractive material and presenting to friends this Environment Day, may turn out to be a wonderful idea!
9. Be the change: Lastly, let’s not wait for someone else to take the action, we should act now and contribute our bit, before it gets too late.
Researchers have posed a question-Starting the date of declaration of pandemic in March 2020 till today, the world has used approx. 2.32 trillion masks, and with our current directives in place, only 1-2 % has been recycled, where did the rest go? Sadly, the figures stand underestimated. None of us could have imagined that in addition to the grievous concerns like loss of lives and health issues, the pandemic shall bring with it the many by-products which shall leave us fighting the mountain of PPEs even after the coronavirus leaves us. Time for some collective action and action as responsible citizens.
(All the figures and facts mentioned above have been referred from internationally published research on the subject)
Dr Priti Swarup is International HR Expert, Columnist, Trainer, pursuing PhD in Organisation Change Management