The coronavirus pandemic has become the all-pervasive and predominant new reality all across the world and while it has effected almost all spheres of our lives from the economy to the politics, its environmental implications haven’t received the kind of attention that it should have. The environmental implications of the COVID-19 pandemic need our urgent attention because in what has become the new normal amid the pandemic, the widespread usage of face masks, disposable gloves and face shields is sure to bring about a gigantic waste crisis before the global community and we may soon be left with no choice but to stare at the problem with little in our capacities to do about it.
The usage of masks has become the central and most often the highlight of our assertions regarding how we can stay protected from the virus and we seldom talk about how the usage of masks and largely those that are made out of plastics or designed to be used just once can end up leading to an unprecedented waste crisis in the world and we may soon be faced with thousands of tonnes of waste generated out of disposed masks all across the world.
While it is true that governments throughout the world have shown keen interest in spreading awareness regarding the significance of wearing face masks among their citizens but little thinking or research has been done about the environmental and ecological consequences of the gigantic amounts of waste that will be generated if we continue to use masks in an unaltered and unchanged fashion. It is interesting to note that many surveyors and independent researchers have carried out work on what kind of implications the usage of single-use masks can have on the ecology and they have found that if every citizen based in the United Kingdom used a fresh single-use mask everyday for the period of one year, this alone would lead to the generation of 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic.
The study also reminds us that since masks are largely made of non-biodegradable micro-plastics when deposited into landfills, it would not only lead to soil contamination but also lead to pollution of waterways that are close by. The problem of waste that the usage of single-use masks can generate is gigantic and can be better understood if we can acknowledge the fact that China which is the single largest producer of such masks has been making a minimum of 116 million units per day since February.
Imagine the huge piles of plastic that would have been generated as a result, let alone the plastic waste generated by other countries which have also been making single use face-masks. While we have to underline the importance of wearing face masks as an effective tool for protecting ourselves from catching the coronavirus infection, we have to also understand that there should be increased efforts towards popularising face masks that can be used more than once and which provide decent protection to the wearer. Some of the effective ways in which it can be ensured that the plastic waste created by masks is reduced is through popularisation of cloth masks.
There should also be efforts to create masks for single-use but with materials that are more eco-friendly and sustainable. We also have to acknowledge the fact that it is as important to concentrate on the disposal of masks as it is on the material that is used to make them. Appropriate disposal of masks is extremely important including the process of segregation and incineration.
This also calls for mask manufacturers and governments to come together and make efforts to ensure that recycling technologies are amped up and an awareness is spread regarding the usage of the right kind of masks that would give them the right kind of protection and at the same time be less harmful for the environment.
It is also important to acknowledge that the environmental consequences of the pandemic are here to stay for a prolonged period of time and if we don’t take adequate steps now, we may soon be faced with an unprecedented waste management crisis owing to the large scale usage of single-use masks.