Features

Careless disposal of masks: a new environmental problem?

 

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), while on a quest to estimate the positive impacts on the environment as a result of people being homebound for a significant period of time, found that we are posed with a new challenge brought on by the disposal of surgical masks.

CEJ Executive Director Hemantha Withanage, speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, shared that firstly they tested how many in the population of the country had been using surgical masks. With a sample population of about 500 individuals, they found out that 70% of these people had used only about one to five masks within the months of March and April, 5% had used over 20 masks, 5% had used somewhere in between 10-20 masks, and 17% had used five to 10 masks, while the remaining percentage had not used any at all.

When questioned on how they dispose of the masks, it turned out that 44% of the individuals who had used masks failed to dispose of it properly; some individuals had even admitted to simply throwing the masks away, the same way they dispose of plastics.

Withanage said this kind of disposal of clinical masks is harmful for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is non-biodegradable, therefore it pollutes the same way as plastic. Next, the accumulation of clinical masks can cause serious harm in terms of spreading germs. As Withanage shared, various other kinds of bacteria and viruses can linger on these masks and spread when irresponsibly thrown away. 

He further explained that although items such as masks are destroyed by clinicians when they use it, the general public clearly lacks the knowledge when it comes to handling these items, which can therefore cause unwanted problems when it is discarded. Not only does this create a problem of its own, but also exacerbates the prevailing problem of pollution, piling onto polythene waste. 

Withanage was also concerned for the future, sharing that with it being the monsoon season, the tendency for non-biodegradable waste to get washed away and cause more damage increases. He and the CEJ would like to let people know that it is important to ensure these products are disposed of properly. 

University of Moratuwa Department of Chemical and Process Engineering Environmentalist and Senior Professor Ajith de Alwis thinks the general public should understand the purpose behind wearing masks and stop using masks which are essentially for the frontline workers who come into contact with patients of the virus. 

He believes the problem is with the lack of understanding of Sri Lankans. He said that while these masks are somewhat a novelty to the general public here, they have been used for a long time in a very disciplined manner by countries such as Japan and Korea. The type of masks, he said, the public must use is not surgical masks. 

He also noted that we must use reusable masks on a daily basis instead of disposable masks which need to be incinerated or disposed of. He shared this as a response to the lack of discipline he sees in terms of our manner of disposing waste material, which is evident in the above mentioned study done by the CEJ. He believes that because of the way things are being disposed of in our country, there is no doubt it would all collect over time and cause grievous harm.