Wednesday, 08 Jul 2020
PETALING JAYA: Although putting on a face mask while out in public is now part of the new normal, many have yet to learn how to properly dispose of used masks.
In fact, discarding masks like litter, throwing them without segregating or even recycling them pose a risk to the environment and public health.
According to environment and waste management expert Dr Theng Lee Chong, face masks which end up in a landfill or on the streets are a “big threat to the environment”.
He said more troubling was the huge number of masks being used – an estimated 10 million pieces daily - with the numbers likely to increase when more students return to schools on July 15.
Theng noted while masks used in hospitals, clinics and labs were disposed into the medical waste stream, those used by the public ended up in the general waste stream, which has no facilities to properly dispose of such waste. “As each mask only weighs a few grams and it’s thin, we don’t see tremendous quantity in the waste stream in terms of weight but the impact could be huge in the long run.
“There is no specific study being done on the waste perspective of face masks yet because it’s rather new, ” he said.
Theng said that as face masks were made from non-woven fabric, they were “not really degradable” and would take a “very long time to degrade”.
“Due to hygiene and pandemic risk, face masks must not be recycled, ” he said, adding that used masks should not even come into contact with humans after disposal.
He noted putting masks into recycle bins or drop off points should be strictly prohibited because it could contaminate all other recyclable materials left there.
“It is also a risk to the workers who handle the recyclables, ” he warned.
Globally, environmentalists are seeing an increase in plastic pollution from surgical masks. Environmental group OceansAsia revealed that it had observed an increase in the number of disposed face masks while conducting research off the coasts of Hong Kong.
Joffrey Peltier, from France-based clean-up charity Opération Mer Propre, said they came across face masks, gloves and bottles of hand sanitiser – which he described as “Covid waste” – in the Mediterranean Sea.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has advised that open dumping or open burning of medical household waste could cause serious pollution that posed threats to human health and environment. It noted that since the previous Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, many cities in China had introduced centralised collection systems for medical wastes with appropriate segregation.
UNEP also called for Covid-19-related waste to be segregated at household level, with the waste container sealed and kept safe from scavengers.
Waste handlers, it also advised, should also ensure they wash their hands thoroughly after sealing bags.