Disposable masks are the latest pollution problem

Disposable masks have joined single-use plastic and straws in the list of products with which people pollute the environment.

This is according to the president of the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa, Brendon Jewaskiewitz, who said the problem was now “snowballing”.

Pollution from plastic waste such as straws has been an environmental crisis for years, especially affecting marine life. But now the demand for disposable masks during the Covid‑19 pandemic has become an additional concern.

According to a study by the US Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, 0.15-million to 0.39-million tonnes of plastic debris could end up in global oceans within a year. Mismanaged waste from masks in the countries that were analysed was 2.37-million tonnes. The five countries with the highest disposable mask usage a day were Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, India and Vietnam.

Although there is no data on the daily usage of disposable masks in South Africa, Jewaskiewitz said the crisis could be averted through education.

“The responsible management of waste is a human problem — we need to work on educating people about resource and waste management in order to change attitudes,” he said.

“Until people realise that this has a massive direct impact on them, they will not change their behaviour, even with legislation in place. The other issue is the enforcement of such legislation and whether it will be effective — it is a lot easier to achieve our objectives if people buy into the philosophy to start with.”

Disposable masks are preferred for their convenience but the institute believes reusable masks should be the personal protective equipment of choice, even for a water-scarce country like South Africa.

“As a water-scarce country, it makes sense that we need to be even more careful about pollution — if disposable masks are not disposed of correctly, they end up in the environment, breaking down over time into micro- and nanoplastics, which will most definitely pollute our water resources and will be virtually impossible to get rid of,” Jewaskiewitz said.

“Even in a public health crisis, we need to take care of our environment and natural resources, and in fact, we need to be extra vigilant that unintended consequences of our actions do not occur,” he added.

“While we are doing our utmost in terms of public health by encouraging the use of masks, we need to follow through and not neglect the implications of the resultant waste that is produced and the poor management thereof.”

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Marcia Zali
Marcia Zali is an award winning journalist

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