In the midst of the battle against the novel CoViD-19 pandemic, the throw-away culture, previously adopted for convenience has simply been perpetuated. In many countries CoViD-19 regulations have led to a higher number of single-use plastic and multi-layer laminate items, typically PPE (including facemasks, gloves and other protective gear) in the public sector. The WWF reported that if just 1% of facemasks are disposed of incorrectly, this would equate to as many as 10 million facemasks per month, polluting the environment.
Since the first outbreak in December 2019, the world’s focus has naturally been on human survival, with environmental issues becoming a secondary consideration. The moral dilemma is: Has our need for protection against this virus caused more harm to our natural surroundings?
Initially, the pandemic gave us a glimmer of hope, when hard lockdown regulations on social and economic activities led to the improvement of air quality in many cities. Infamously polluted China reported a 50% reduction of Greenhouse Gases emissions as a result of the shutdown of heavy industries, while even heavily populated India noted a significant reduction in water pollution in the Ganga and Yamuna rivers (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Ganga River
But this silver lining didn’t last, as lockdown restrictions were eased and society began functioning at a new “normal” again.
The wearing of facemasks has become mandatory in most countries. According to a study in Environmental Science & Technology, the world is using an estimated 129 billion disposable masks and 65 billion disposable gloves each month during the pandemic (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Number of masks used per month
Most single use PPE is made from a variety of plastics, including polypropylene, polyethylene and vinyl. Recycling is not an option as the facemasks could potentially be contaminated and are often considered as health care risk waste. At medical facilities, it is incinerated along with medical waste, and from the general public, it is often landfilled in safe disposal facilities.
A UK survey of 2000 people showed that 51% of participants were using single-use blue surgical masks- at a larger scale, an equivalent to 26.7 million people and enough masks to cover London entirely in under 2 days.
Unfortunately, a substantial volume of PPE waste seems to end up in oceans, rivers and other water bodies. According to Waste Free Oceans, disposable masks take up to 450 years to fully decompose in marine systems. Not to mention the potentially dangerous pathogens it carries. With increasing PPE pollutants, French researchers are concerned that if the current usage rate of single-use PPE continues, there will soon be more face masks than jelly fish in the Mediterranean.
Animals haven’t escaped PPE pollution either. In Essex, a young seagull was rescued by the RSCPA, after its feet was entangled in a disposable face mask. Individuals are encouraged to snip the straps of their face masks prior to disposal into general waste bins.
Figure 4: Seagull entangled in a mask.
Conservationists have warned that discarded PPE waste can smother and break up ecosystems, with some animals being unable to differentiate between plastics and prey, subsequently choking on discarded gloves and face masks. Even if they escape choking, animals can suffer from malnourishment as the plastic materials fill up their stomachs, but provide no nutrients.
How do we stay safe and protect ecosystems?
In light of the environmental impacts of single-use face masks, most governments have promulgated policies and regulations requesting the public sector to use fabric face masks, that can be sanitised and reused. Single-use face masks should be saved for front line medical professionals, as these are incinerated and not disposed at landfill sites.
Figure 5: Best practice protocols for wearing masks.
This simple yet effective measures can greatly improve the state of our natural environment, the ecosystems that reside in it, and also prevent further spread of COVID-19.
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