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According to a research report by shopping comparison site, Finder.Com, the UK could be sending 53.5 million single-use blue surgical masks to the landfill every day, totalling 1.6 billion every month. 

The research found that over half (51%) of those surveyed in the UK say that they use blue surgical masks, equalling 26.7 million people. The report assumes that people are likely using at least two masks a day as they are intended to be single-use; this would result in 53.5 million disposable masks being used to slow the spread of COVID-19 every day. 

Over a month, this amounts to 1.6 billion masks being sent to the landfill in the UK, where they take between 20 and 30 years to biodegrade. This is enough to cover the whole area of London in under two days and reach the moon in two-and-a-half days. 

While this figure is shocking, it is important to note that the research report surveyed 2 000 people throughout Great Britain. However, the pandemic has nonetheless seen a tremendous surge in the amount of waste generated- be it masks or plastic takeaway containers. Take 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. 

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Hong Kong-based oceans NGO, OceansAsia reported a stark increase in marine debris and microplastics build-up in Hong Kong since January, and found large quantities of face masks littered along beaches and rural suburbs. On a beach in Lantau Island, the organisation reported finding 70 face masks disposed across an area just 100 meters long, with an additional 30 washed up on shore. This raised concern among members as the area is relatively uninhabited and is difficult to access, providing insight into potential larger littering figures across more popular beaches.

The report also outlines ways to dispose of masks correctly and hygienically, including washing your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water before putting on a mask, covering your mouth and nose with the mask and ensuring that there are no gaps between your face and the mask, avoiding touching the mask while you are wearing it, replacing the mask with a new one when it is damp and not reusing single-use masks and removing the mask from behind and discarding immediately.

Featured image by: Flickr


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 impact of these masks in the midst of the COVID-19 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 environmental impact of such clinical debris during COVID-19 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 the pandemic is 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 against the environmental impact of COVID-19. 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.

Consumers can turn to alternative solutions to alleviate the environmental impact of mask wearing, such as reusable cloth masks. While reusable cloth masks are currently a more expensive option, as demand rises the manufacturing of this type of mask is scaling to the point of becoming increasingly affordable. Consumers and local businesses can work with municipalities to integrate reusable masks with mask-wearing ordinances. Local governments can create mutually beneficial agreements with cloth mask manufacturers by ensuring bulk purchases. Municipalities would then be able to subsidise a portion of the higher cost of reusable masks for the public’s use. Citizen action to coerce policy change, combined with the scalability of cloth mask production and subsequent lowering cost, can make sustainable mask-wearing the norm.

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