WEARING a face mask is now part and parcel of a person’s attire when going out.
In wrestling to control the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, the government made it mandatory since Aug 1 for everyone to mask up in public places.
However, the compulsory ruling strikes like a double-edged sword as the protective shield is now a threat to the environment because of indiscriminate disposal of face masks.
While people have eased into the habit of donning face masks, the question arises as to whether they are aware of how to properly discard them.
In a random check by StarMetro, we learned that some people were unsure if there was a right way to throw away their face masks.
A 35-year-old IT engineer, who only wished to be known as Rajesh, said he was unsure if there was a correct method to get rid of his face masks.
“I wrap my used face mask in a paper before throwing it in the bin.”
He said the government should have proper guidelines on how face masks should be discarded.
“I think people need to dispose of face masks properly and not just throw them into the bin.
“Perhaps there should be educational advertisements or animations on television or the Internet to teach people how to dispose of face masks,” he added.
Laboratory analyst Sarmila, 27, said she put her face mask into a plastic bag before throwing it.
“I put it in a separate plastic bag, tie the plastic and discard it with other rubbish when I am at home,” she elaborated.
She said it was important for people to dispose of face masks properly to prevent them being misused by others.
“I recently read an article about people retrieving used masks, washing and drying them before reselling them.
“I think it is better to cut the masks into half, so others are not able to reuse them,” she said.
A similar concern was also expressed by Ezzatul Islam Badrol Hisham, 22.
“I read an article on how to dispose of face masks. We are advised to tear the face mask before throwing to prevent them from being reused,” said the university student, who also mentioned that she categorised face masks as dry trash and separated them from wet wastes.
“I don’t think everyone knows how to dispose of face masks properly.
“Social media is a suitable platform for raising awareness of the proper disposal of face masks,” she said.
Student Yvonne Yong, 20, said she preferred folding her face mask before throwing it.
“Thousands of people are disposing their masks every day and many are not being environmentally-friendly in getting rid of their waste.
“But I guess not much can be done in the current global pandemic because people cannot go about their business without wearing a face mask,” she said.
A 30-year-old doctor, who only wished to be known as Mero, suggested that yellow bins meant for medical wastes be made available in public places for people to discard their face masks.
“I work in a hospital, so I usually dispose of my face mask in the yellow bins.
“Yellow bins should also be made available everywhere to make it easier for people to dispose of their face masks.
“Face mask is considered clinical waste because bodily fluid is on it and it becomes dirty.
“It is not going to work if you are disposing face masks inappropriately, regardless of the fact that you are wearing them to protect yourself,” she reasoned.
What can be done
In response to this situation, some environmental groups have called for proactive action to prevent face masks from being indiscriminately discarded in public areas.
Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM) president Nithi Nesadurai said separating face masks from other wastes had been fitted in its ongoing campaign of separating household wastes.
“We have always encouraged people to have separate categories for hazardous household wastes such as batteries, used medicine, and you should also consider your face masks in that category.
“It is fitted into our ongoing campaign Sustainable Living in Malaysia (SLiM), which we have been promoting for a long time on how to deal with household wastes,” he said.
Nithi said that while hospitals had their own disposal method for hazardous medical wastes, it was advisable for the public to wrap face masks in plastic or paper before throwing them away.
“People should not throw their face masks directly into the bins as they are technically medical waste and not recyclable.
“As we do not have the public infrastructure to dispose of them securely at present, the best method for public disposal is to put them in a sealed plastic bag and dispose of them as domestic waste.
“Then again, wrapping them in a plastic bag contributes to plastic pollution as well.
“It would be better to wrap them properly in an envelope before throwing them in the bin,” he said.
He urged the Housing and Local Government Ministry to issue a clear advisory on how and where face masks should be disposed of, as well as create a centralised collection system or instal special bins in residential areas because face masks were here to stay for the time being.
“Face masks thrown into dustbins will end up in the landfill and when it rains, the contaminants or impurities on the mask will be washed off and end up in the rivers.
“This is a serious danger to our health and environment.
“Who knows what kind of contaminants are on the face masks?
“They can lead to negative health effects as well as pollute rivers,” he said.
Global Environment Centre (GEC) river care programme manager Dr K. Kalithasan said companies should also provide specific bins for their employees to dispose of face masks.
“GEC uses normal bins with closed lids and we have hand sanitisers for our cleaners to use.
“These bins are specifically for face mask disposal.
“More companies should adopt this practice as this will reduce concerns on how cleaners are disposing of rubbish, especially face masks,” he said.
He highlighted that it was best if waste bins had lids to close them in order to prevent exposing others to the germs.
He agreed that public awareness on proper disposal of face masks was still poor.
“This is a serious concern as face masks, used by the public, are being thrown on our streets, in parks and public places.
“This will create a new kind of environmental pollution, similar to the problem of single-use plastic.
“When face masks are discarded on the streets, they are likely to be washed into the drains.
“When there are too many face masks in our drains, there is a tendency for them to clog the drains and this too may contribute to flash floods during a downpour.
“The face masks can also be carried away to rivers and eventually the ocean,” he said.
Kalithasan said people should opt for reusable three-layer cloth masks to reduce the number of disposal masks that were being thrown away.
“The outer layer should be water-resistant, the inner layer water-absorbent and the middle layer to act as a filter,” he said, adding that he also provided such face masks to his staff.
According to Health Ministry, fabric masks are allowed for those who do not have respiratory symptoms, if they live within an area where Covid-19 infections are rare or if they are not visiting places where physical distancing is hard to practise.
The three-ply ones are a must for health workers, people with respiratory symptoms, high-risk groups and those who are in Covid-19 infectious zones as well as areas where physical distancing is difficult to observe.
The ministry advises senior citizens aged 60 and above and those who suffer from chronic diseases to wear three-ply face masks.
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