Updated: Nov 3, 2021
As I walked through my hometown, I noticed an increase in litter on the ground. As time passed, observing the usual food wrappers, receipts, and gum that graced the sidewalks for years, I began to see the occasional disposable mask tossed aside carelessly. Returning back to campus, where masks are essential and required, the presence of this type of pollution is even more evident. With the onset of the pandemic, all efforts have turned to prevent the spread of COVID-19 with a call to social distance, wear face coverings, and practice more sanitary habits. At the forefront of medical care, doctors and other essential healthcare workers take extra precautions in the interest of treating patients while also avoiding infection. Within these health care settings, personal protective equipment (PPE) functions as a key factor in controlling the disease. Although the manufacturing and production of PPE have increased significantly, their lifespan has remained limited, with most of the PPE taking the form of single-use products. Moreover, the manner in which people are disposing of them presents a major problem for the environment. This, along with the increased output of medical waste, results in an unforeseeable consequence of the pandemic: contribution to waste pollution which threatens the health of our planet.
Even before the pandemic, the world already struggled with waste management. However, with the significant increase in hospitalizations and families working from home, this issue has worsened . At the height of the outbreak, the generation of medical waste climbed at an alarming rate. In Wuhan, China, the epicenter of primary infections, hospitals, and other medical centers were generating around 240 metric tons of waste per day . In comparison to the output before, this is almost 190 tons more . Similar issues are evident in other cities around the world, such as Manila, Hanoi, and Bangkok, demonstrating the widespread reach of waste pollution during the pandemic . Just as the pandemic affects numerous countries, so does pollution. Thus, it is not the fault of one country; rather, it is the responsibility of the world.
It is easy to look at the numbers in terms of overall production and write it off as a problem for large entities such as the government or hospitals. However, individuals are at the root of this issue as well. We choose convenience over sustainability, deciding to purchase disposable masks instead of investing in reusable ones. The market for disposable masks has a compound growth rate of 53%, demonstrating the incredible demand for expendable products . The significant increase in manufacturing has been identified in connection to the pandemic, which translates to more products being used and, inevitably, more frequent improper disposal. When the masks are not discarded correctly, they inflict damage on the environment. In Hong Kong specifically, masks clutter the beaches and float into the water, acting as a hazard to wildlife . Surgical masks like these are made out of polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer that can take up to 20-30 years to completely degrade . With such a long lifespan, these masks can critically harm natural ecosystems for multiple decades. For marine life, synthetic polymers can become “marine debris”, which can lead to interactions resulting in smothering, ingestion, or entanglement .
What can be done to combat these issues of waste disposal and sustainability? Primarily, medical waste needs to be thoroughly treated and contained so that it does not cause further contamination when it is discharged . Governments should allocate resources so that this process is properly managed, as well as promote information on proper disposal for people to utilize . Educating constituents enables them to self-regulate their environmental impact. In terms of single-use products, those with the liberty and ability to choose should opt for purchasing reusable masks or other face coverings. However, there are cases where people either are required to use these surgical masks or are unable to obtain other options. As of now, there are few opportunities to recycle them due to their composition of a highly unsustainable polymer. What’s more, is that single-use masks are also just one small part of products containing polypropylene. To confront this, more methods for polypropylene recycling need to be developed. Simultaneously, existing methods should be further advertised in the interest of reusing materials and decreasing their contributions to landfills. The pandemic has already impacted humanity, let us not allow it to damage the environment too.
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