With as many as 300 000 cases recorded in 188 countries, the United Nations’ World Health Organization has recently declared the fast-spreading COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. It is natural then that citizens around the globe are hastening to take every possible measure to safeguard their health against the virus. The most widespread of these precautions is the extensive use of surgical face masks. It is natural not to consider the environmental impacts of these masks in the midst of the pandemic, but attention must be paid to an environmental problem that will far exceed that of the virus.

These masks are mainly made of non-woven fabric such as polypropylene, which is between 20 and 25 grams per square metre in density. Polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene or polyester are some of the other commonly-used materials in surgical masks. While they keep out bacteria effectively (although not necessarily that of the virus), the masks are plastic-based, liquid-resistant products that have a long afterlife after they are discarded, ending up in landfill or oceans.  

Given that surgical masks are supposed to be worn for no longer than one day, their disposal- along with that of empty hand sanitizer bottles and soiled tissue papers- is leading to a massive trail of clinical waste in the environment. In Hong Kong, for example, which has been battling the coronavirus since late January, such waste has already started polluting the environment.

During a recent survey trip to Soko Islands, a small cluster of islands lying south-west of Lantau Island, Hong Kong-based environmental NGO OceansAsia found heaps of discarded single-use masks washed up on a 100-metre stretch of beach. According to Gary Stokes, founder and director of the ocean-centred NGO, which has been monitoring ocean surface trash as part of WWF’s Blue Ocean Initiative, their team has seen the odd mask here and there over the years, but this time they were spotted all along the high tide line and foreshore with new deposits coming in with each current. 

“Due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, the general population have all taken the precaution of wearing surgical masks. When you suddenly have a population of 7 million people wearing one to two masks per day, the amount of trash generated is going to be substantial,” Stokes says.

The adverse effects of such clinical debris are far-reaching. Once these are left discarded in an animal’s natural habitat- be it land or water- this may cause animals to mistake this trash for food, which could lead to entanglement, choking, ingestion and death.

Certain portions of the population are at risk of adverse impacts from exposure to medical waste as well, such as cleaners, garbage collectors and other people who spend a great deal of time in public spaces. Even as governments across the world are urging students to stay away from schools and universities, and white-collar employees are availing work-from-home options, those at the frontline of keeping cities clean have to go about their daily chores, making them one of the most vulnerable groups and one that is most susceptible to the virus from droplets that may linger on the masks. They may also catch other forms of infection from pathogens remaining on these discarded pieces of garbage, such as meningitis and Hepatitis B and C. 

According to the WHO’s health guidelines, soiled tissues and used face masks must be thrown only into lidded litter bins, while any medical gear used by affected patients and hospital staff must be sterilised and burnt at high temperatures in dedicated incinerators. As such, only state-of-the-art incinerators operating at 850-1100°C, with special gas-cleaning equipment, can burn these items in accordance with international emission standards. Unfortunately, however, not all regions have the capacity to properly deal with the sudden spike in clinical waste generated as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Take the case of Wuhan, for example. The Chinese city which has been at the epicentre of the pandemic and which is home to over 11 million people, is reported to have generated 200 tons of clinical trash on a single day (24 February 2020), four times the amount the city’s only dedicated facility can incinerate per day. 

With COVID-19 spreading to other parts of the globe rapidly, the spotlight will soon be on medical waste treatment management around the world and how effective their measures are. While health institutions and private waste management companies in some countries are already stepping up their coronavirus-specific decontamination services, it is also equally important for governments to step up and find solutions quickly. At the same time, it is also each individual’s responsibility to follow the necessary guidelines while disposing of their masks and other medical gear. After all, it is only through mutual empathy and goodwill that we will see the world emerge stronger from this global pandemic.