Discarded facemasks: The next big environmental crisis?

Priyantha Karunaratne 

People continue to use facemasks to protect themselves and others from covid-19 and reduce the chance of its spread, but the improper disposal of single-use facemasks has become one of the main environmental challenges today. 

Haphazard discard of used facemasks in water sources, and marine and wildlife areas is now emerging as a huge environmental issue that needs an urgent solution.

In both urban and rural areas, it is not uncommon to see used facemasks on streets and other public places. However, it is in rural areas where urban area garbage containing millions of used facemasks is disposed of, raising major environmental concerns.

A recent survey indicated that around 15 million facemasks were discarded daily in Sri Lanka. Of the two main waste disposal methods used in Sri Lanka, landfill is more popular than recycling. Landfill and recycling are sustainable waste-disposal methods, but there is no systematic method to dispose of used facemasks. 

The failure of the government to adopt such a system has adversely affected river and seawater sources, although the then Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera had pointed out that inappropriately disposed of facemasks would be the country’s next major environmental problem. To overcome this looming crisis, he stressed the urgent need to introduce proper waste disposal solutions and create public awareness of non-degradable waste.

It is not only freshwater or seawater sources that become polluted by improperly discarded facemasks. Foreign media reports have highlighted instances of marine animals such as turtles getting entangled in used facemasks.

Similarly, improperly discarded masks can get wrapped around birds. To protect marine and other animals, we should, as an immediate solution, cut off the straps of the mask before discarding them. This can minimise the risk of masks getting entangled around animals. 

Disposable facemasks are manufactured using different types of polymers. These include polypropylene, polyethylene, polystyrene, polycarbonate and polyester in varying amounts. 

It is said that plastic polymers take at least one hundred years to decompose.  Even then the time it takes to decompose depends on external factors such as the temperature and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. However, environmental experts believe that microplastic particles can remain in the soil for a long time without decomposing.

Before the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lankan environmental groups and conservationists had been raising alarm over the growing menace of clinical waste disposal. They called for the gradual reduction of non-biodegradable clinical waste and the introduction of environment-friendly and sustainable clinical waste disposal methods. 

However, the sheer amount of masks used and discarded during the covid-19 pandemic has created many new problems on top of the pre-pandemic issue over the disposal of clinical waste (including facemasks).

When contacted for comments, Maritime Environment Authority Coordinator Muditha Katuwawala spoke of some significant issues his team had identified during coastal cleanup programmes. 

“We noticed algae growth in discarded facemasks we removed from the sea. The presence of masks in the sea causes fish and other marine life to mistake them for food. We know that microorganisms such as algae do not contain plastic but the situation with facemasks is different because fish and other organisms misidentify them as food. They unknowingly consume plastic molecules,” Mr Katuwawala explained. 

Coral reefs are said to be the building blocks of marine life. According to Mr Katuwawala, over time, coral reef growth can be affected when facemasks dumped into the sea get entangled in corals. Another issue is the impact on birds and other animals that consume marine life affected by discarded facemasks.

Mr Katuwawala said, “Birds, mistaking floating facemasks to be fish, snatch them. We have seen birds with their necks and legs entangled in facemasks. Also, if crustaceans such as shrimps and crabs eat parts of facemasks, the food chain patterns may change, affecting human and animal food patterns,” he said. 

When this writer contacted Central Environment Authority official Ajith Weerasundara for his views, he said that in Sri Lanka, although clinical waste was incinerated, used facemasks are dumped in the garbage to be collected by local council garbage trucks.

Since 2014, the Health Ministry has been implementing a programme for the disposal of clinical waste. However, this programme only focuses on clinical waste discarded by hospitals while no specific method has been identified to dispose of clinical waste collected from homes. Until such time the government adopts a systematic method to dispose of facemasks, people need to be environmentally conscious when disposing of facemasks.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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