Pollution Crisis Looms As PPE Waste Piles Up
By Eunice Ruth
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing a mask became the norm and it increased the use of medical masks globally. Even though medical masks provide protection against diseases, it is not disposed properly by many. This improper disposal of used masks poses a big threat to marine life, the marine environment, other animals, and nature. It also increases the threat of spreading the virus.
Plastic pollution has increased as a result of COVID-19 and consumer habits have also shifted with increasing plastic use. With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing, single-use masks will continue to be in use with large numbers in future.
Plastic pollution in marine habitats has increased drastically in Sri Lanka and other countries since last year with the single-use plastics including surgical masks. Even though there are many other causes for marine pollution, one cause became prevalent amidst the pandemic which is the improper disposal of PPE including surgical face masks and gloves. People disposed use masks in different ways but disposing them in oceans and other water bodies has become a major concern which needs to be minimised to protect marine life as well as other ecosystems.
Even as PPE has been made mandatory, their liberal use has resulted in increased generation of medical waste in the country. Improper disposal practices by the public can create serious health and environmental issues. Face masks, other PPE and single-use plastics are lightweight and when discarded in open landfill, they can be easily be carried away by wind and surface currents, quickly spreading to the environment.
Three million face masks disposed every minute
Speaking to the coordinator of Pearl Protectors, Muditha Katuwawala, noted that the improper disposal of used face masks and other PPE might transmit the disease to wildlife.
He noted that it is estimated that approximately 129 billion used-face masks have been disposed and 65 billion are disposed on monthly basis, where three million used masks get disposed every minute globally. These face masks are designed for single-use and they are usually made of polypropylene, a type of plastic that cannot be broken down quickly in the environment. Most masks consist of three layers and are made of composite materials that are difficult to separate, making them unsuitable for recycling. Finally they enter oceans as a cause of improper disposal and furthermore the waste management system is also poor in Sri Lanka.
Between 17 March and 31 October 2020, around 495 tons of masks were imported to Sri Lanka which is approximately 140 million masks. Also apart from importing, a number of face mask factories have been set up in the country and all these could lead to a serious threat to the environment.
“Even though the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) have submitted a series of guidelines to local Government bodies on the proper disposal methods for used face masks, however, it is not followed by anyone properly within our country as well as globally.”
Meanwhile, the Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera said that three types of people use face masks currently. They are; COVID-19 infected patients, their close associates, or quarantined people and the general public. Used masks of COVID-19 infected patients and close associates or quarantined people are collected and disposed properly, but the major problem is with the general public. The public discard used masks without following proper health guidelines and the virus could spread rapidly due to this reason.
“Previously, we tested some water samples from COVID-19 infected patients’ area and it showed even that had particles of the virus. Due to this concern, if the virus got mixed with water bodies, it will create a huge threat to humans as well as the natural environment.”
Also, the Minister urged the public and other organisations to strictly follow the guidelines given by the CEA in order to prevent the further spread and negative environmental impacts.
As a primary solution for the issue and in order to reduce and prevent marine pollution, Katuwawala suggested reducing the use of single-use surgical masks and that people can instead use N95, KN95 masks or other reusable cloth masks which are very useful and helpful in controlling environmental issues.
Furthermore, the disposal of facemasks and gloves are considered medical waste and their disposal should be carried out by hospitals and medical centres. Currently hospitals are disposing only their internal medical waste and not imported or household ones.
The Sri Lankan Government and Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) are planning to set up a new policy plan regarding a collection mechanism and a mechanism to dispose medical wastes such as used surgical masks and gloves properly with the help of hospitals and other medical centres.
He further noted that people should be aware that when disposing masks they should not mix medical waste with other household waste and also, while disposing, people should cut the straps off the mask as it can cause more harm to animals that might consume or get trapped in them.
The public needs to be educated on the proper ways of disposing medical waste and they should need to be informed on acting more responsibly towards protecting the environment.
Third party med waste collector
Speaking to the General Manager of MEPA, Dr. P.B. Terney Pradeep Kumara, noted that a private company was collecting medical and chemical wastes from hospitals and that during the pandemic, the general public also started using face masks which can be considered medical waste. This private company is expected to extend its services to the general public. Currently, discussions in this regard are underway and soon a separate collection centre will be established to collect face masks from the public. Accordingly, the company will collect the masks from the centres or the collected masks will be sent to the company from the collection centre directly.
He further noted that the marine environment has been seriously affected due to the improper disposal of masks and other PPE and that now, even fishermen find face masks in nets instead of fish. Previously, the public was advised to burn used face masks at home and segregate from the other household waste. However, no is following proper methods and it has affected the natural environment.
Pix by The Pearl protectors