Littering of facemasks in public areas a persistent problem

THE littering of facemasks in public areas is a stubborn problem, as Malaysians continue to dump used ones on roads, parking lots and other places.

It doesn’t help that it takes about 450 years for an average single-use face mask to degrade, as it is made out of plastic and not paper, according to reports.

But some Malaysians still choose to throw them away indiscriminately in public areas.

Malaysian Nature Society president Prof Dr Ahmad Ismail says this problem still persists even after being highlighted in the media, with people still discarding used masks in places like parking lots in shopping malls.

Prof Ahmad: Reusable or cloth facemasks could be a better alternative for the environment.Prof Ahmad: Reusable or cloth facemasks could be a better alternative for the environment.

“Reusable or cloth facemasks could be a better alternative for the environment, as people will keep them and wash them after each use, ” he says.

He explains that facemasks discarded in public areas will be washed away by rain into drainage systems, finally ending up in rivers and oceans.

“The government is still in the process of campaigning for managing plastic waste. Facemasks is a part of plastic pollution too.

“We need to minimise plastic pollution, especially in our ocean as it is a global concern, and prevent plastics from jeopardising aquatic life, ” Prof Ahmad says.

Facemasks can also be hazardous to other wildlife including sea birds.

“Wearing masks has become part of our lifestyle in this new normal. As such, managing masks or throwing them away in the right place must also become a habit, ” he adds.

Currently, facemasks used by the public are classified as solid waste, not clinical waste, says the Department of Environment (DOE).

There is a suggestion that masks should be dumped in special bins in public areas to be collected as clinical waste, but the DOE says this is not possible.

“Special bins for clinical waste are prohibited to be in public places as their management needs to adhere to clinical waste management requirements, ” it says.

However, some experts believe facemasks could pose a risk not only to the environment but to public health as well if they are contaminated with germs and viruses.

Dr Renard Siew, a climate change adviser at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies, says Malaysia’s definition of clinical waste is that it comes from healthcare facilities, laboratories and others which are covered under scheduled waste.

Siew: Masks can persist in the environment for decades to hundreds of years. — FilepicsSiew: Masks can persist in the environment for decades to hundreds of years. — Filepics

“But protective wear items from households like facemasks are categorised under domestic waste.

“Perhaps facemasks should be under a different categorisation, instead of just calling them domestic waste.

“This is because we are not sure about the level of contamination and this poses a risk, ” he points out.

Most such masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials, and if discarded improperly can persist in the environment for decades to hundreds of years, Siew says.

“This means they can have a number of impacts on the environment and people.

“There should be stricter enforcement against litterbugs since discarded masks may risk spreading the coronavirus to waste collectors or people who come across the litter, ” he adds.

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