PPE waste posing a big threat

Web of human folly: The surge in mask-wearing among people has led to a potent new threat to wildlife due to careless disposal of protective gear in massive quantities. (Handout photo by AFP and RSPCA UK)

PETALING JAYA: As the whole world battles the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of face masks has become a daily necessity but experts are increasingly concerned that the indiscriminate disposal of surgical face masks is harming wildlife.

Macaques in Kuala Lumpur, according to newswire AFP, had been spotted chewing on the straps of these masks, thinking they were food.

In Britain, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had rescued a gull after its legs were tangled from the elastic of a disposable face mask.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and face masks is a new category in types of marine debris collected during the annual International Coastal Clean-up (ICC) Day on Sep 19 last year, said a marine conservation organisation Reef Check Malaysia (RCM).

A total of 1,109 pieces of face masks and gloves were recovered on the day, said programme development manager Theresa Ng.

“This can end up starving and choking animals such as turtles and dolphins, ” she said.

Marine conservationist Kevin Hiew said there is a possibility face masks could get entangled in corals, smothering them.

Hong-Kong-based marine conservation organisation OceansAsia had said in a December 2020 report that the oceans would be flooded with an estimated 1.56 billion face masks.

The report entitled Masks on the Beach: The Impact of Covid-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution claimed that this would result in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic pollution.

“These face masks will take as long as 450 years to break down, slowly turning into micro plastics while negatively impacting marine wildlife and our ecosystems, ” said the report.

SWCorp research and technology division director Zulkifli Tamby Chik said that an estimated 86 tonnes of face masks are disposed off daily in the country.

This makes up about 0.2% of the 38,000 tonnes of waste that is collected in the country everyday.

Zulkifli said that after being compacted with other household waste, they would end up in landfills around the country.

“We would encourage the use of reusable masks. Even if we can cut the usage of disposable masks, it can make a lot of difference in terms of the amount of waste collected, ” he said.

He, however, stressed that a bigger concern was the masks that were not disposed of properly and ended up outside landfills.

PPE, in particular face masks, has been mandated as mandatory in public, with Malaysia making it compulsory in August last year.

Three-ply or surgical masks are commonly made from mixtures of non-woven artificial fabrics and polypropylene thermoplastic.

Conventional recycling facilities are unable to break them down for safe processing.

Waste experts estimate that at least 10 million single-use face masks are used and discarded daily in the country.

These masks, however, cannot be recycled because they may be contaminated and could potentially lead to indirect infections if they enter the recycling system.

Prof Dr P. Agamuthu, from the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University, observed that many masks end up on our roads and drains.

“My concern is about the careless behaviour of people discarding their masks everywhere, ” he said.

He said some of these masks could be contaminated with pathogens and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

As for masks that end up in landfills, Agamuthu says that the plastic components in the face masks could take more than 100 years to decompose.

“Plastics already make up 15% to 20% of landfill waste, ” he said.

Waste Management Association of Malaysia honorary secretary Datuk Roger Tan and former Board Member of SWCorp claimed that the situation has gotten worse as more face masks are not being disposed off properly.

“This sort of waste should go straight to the landfill. If not, then it travels to our drains, the rivers and eventually makes its way to the sea, ” he said.

Tan also pointed out how SWCorp should be more proactive in enforcing laws against littering, adding that public awareness programmes should be conducted to educate the public.

“Teachers also play a very important role. We have to inculcate in the minds of young children how important it is not to litter and schools must teach children how to dispose of the face masks properly, ” he said.

“This is a cycle, if people don’t take care of the wildlife, it will affect us directly, ” he added.

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