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29 August, 2021 07:35:33 PM
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Using face masks: A grave threat to the environment

Cotton cloth masks are quickly perishable and environmentally friendly. But, the majority of masks are made of long-lasting plastic materials that, if abandoned, can remain for decades to hundreds of years in the environment.
Md. Obaidullah
Using face masks: A grave threat to the environment

Millions of people have died due to the deadly attack of pandemic COVID-19. We are now helpless against the virus. Scientists suggest using face masks as primary personal protective equipment (PPE) in order to prevent infection. Nowadays, in many public places around the world, face coverings are now compulsory.

It can be said undoubtedly, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, the manufacture and use of face masks has skyrocketed considerably. It goes without saying, people are not properly disposing of discarded masks, which has resulted in an increase in mask waste around the world. Thus, it poses a new environmental threat.

Furthermore, the majority of these masks contain polymers or plastic compounds. The immense use of face masks produces millions of tons of plastic garbage in a short period of time, consequently. As per recent statistics, we use 129 billion face masks per month around the world, or 3 million per minute. Though masks can be used to defend individuals from the virus, the threat has occurred elsewhere. The environment is harmed when masks are abandoned after usage, and the sea is not exempt to mask pollution.

Cotton cloth masks are quickly perishable and environmentally friendly. But, the majority of masks are made of long-lasting plastic materials that, if abandoned, can remain for decades to hundreds of years in the environment. Scientists estimate that 1.5 billion masks dropped into the sea in 2020. These masks include a variety of substances that are detrimental to the environment. Additionally, they are also harmful to marine and human life.

Little guidelines have been given for disposing of masks, in spite of millions of people using them. As countries are easing lockdown limits nowadays, billions of masks are required each month around the world. A catastrophe is approaching unless improved disposal techniques are implemented.

Primarily, the coronavirus could be spread from discarded masks. Waste collectors or litter pickers are at high risk of infection as they garner abandoned masks. As shown in a report published in "The Lancet," the virus can persist for seven days on a plastic surgical mask. How terrific is it. Disposable masks, like other plastic trash, may end up in the environment, freshwater systems, and seas, where aging can produce a huge number of micro-sized particles. Apart from that, hazardous chemical and biological contaminants, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, and infectious microorganisms, may aggregate and discharge through these relinquished masks. Through ingestions of microplastics, which derive from the abandoned masks,  are inserted into the food system. And then enter the major food network that sustains human life. Species in the oceans may fall in danger as some animals are unable to identify the distinguishes between plastic items and their foods. Besides, in the open environment, poisonous particles from plastic can be released during decomposition processes (either chemically or biologically). That results in the death and suffering of attractive sea creatures (e.g. seabirds, turtles, and crustaceans).

Even, the mask strewn in the soil has the potential to harm animals by causing entanglement and death. Recently, we have seen an audacious picture in Columbia where a bird became entangled in a thrown coronavirus facemask in a tree and the mask was then put around its torso and beak, and it died.

Needless to say, the face masks production generates CO2 emissions, which may contribute to global warming. According to a study, the manufacture of N95 masks emits 50 g CO2-eq per mask and surgical masks contain 59 g CO2-eq every single, with the shipping process accounting for the majority of this. The manufacture of fabric masks, on the other hand, emits roughly 60 g CO2-eq of greenhouse gases each mask. Nevertheless, because millions of face masks are made around the world to control the pandemic scenario, this would have a significant influence on the atmosphere. As shown in a study conducted in the United Kingdom, if each person used a disposable surgical mask every day for a year, nearly 124,000 tons of non-recyclable plastic garbage would be generated.

It is shocking to see that, usually, masks are thrown recklessly in the streets. Notwithstanding, masks should be thrown in the dustbin, whether it's high-quality or low-cost surgical masks. These can't be recycled because they're not reusable. As masks are medical waste, they must be burned.

Global governments, policy makers as well as local administrations must have to think about the mask pollution. Because this is a new menace to the environment. WHO may provide comprehensive, standard and strict guidelines of waste management for mask wastes. Also, different countries might impose necessary guidelines to manage used masks with medical wastes. However, for collecting disposed masks, mask-only trash cans could be installed on the road side. Reusable face masks, such as cotton masks, should be used instead of disposable masks and it must be encouraged by the governments and non government organizations. Finally, people's awareness is very crucial to reduce mask pollution, that is don’t throw the masks here and there, keep it safe after using it and then give it to waste collectors.

The writer is a student, department of public administration, University of Barishal. E-mail : [email protected]

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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