THOUGHTS

AN ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS IN THE MAKING

20/07/2020 07:00 AM
Opinions on topical issues from thought leaders, columnists and editors.

By Dr Nuruliza Roslan

Drum roll.

Cue music: Avengers Endgame.

My usual morning scenario before leaving the house, during this COVID-19 pandemic.

New surgical 3-layer face mask: Checked.

At least 70% alcohol-based hand sanitiser: Checked.

3-ply pocket facial tissues: Checked.

Nivea lip gloss: Checked. Because it makes me feel normal. Albeit no one might know or notice.

Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God) on 10th June 2020, Malaysia entered the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) phase of COVID-19. Life seems to be slowly getting back to normal and also not forgetting to brace for the “new normal” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yes, although we are on the road to get our pre-COVID-19 life back, there are some things that we can’t deny which will be one of our “new normal” activities for now and for the foreseeable future: wearing face masks before stepping out that door.

This recommendation by the WHO has been supported by a growing body of research and is a key action in the effort to limit and curb the spread of COVID-19, apart from social distancing and enhanced hygiene (frequent hand-washing).

Many types of face mask

There are many types of face mask available in the market; the surgical grade N95 respirators offer the highest level of protection against COVID-19 infection, followed by surgical grade face masks. However, the N95 masks are costlier than the surgical ones; they are in limited supply, and hard to breathe through when worn for long periods. Therefore, the N95 face masks have been suggested to be reserved for health workers or people in high-risk groups to COVID-19.

Let’s talk about these disposable surgical grade face masks. For now, it’s the most common face masks worn by the public. In the early days of COVID-19, the prices of these surgical face masks were double or even triple from the usual price.

What is this surgical face mask made of? It has three layers, basically a melt blown material that acts as a filter placed between non-woven fibre material which allows tiny particles to adhere to its fibre. Breathing air is not obstructed and can easily pass through the filter material. The outer layer comes in either light blue or light green material that feels like cotton. This is the part that is of great concern for the environment as it is essentially made up of a mix of polymers which (alarm bells ringing!) has been known to take decades (!), even centuries (!!) to decompose.

Based on the data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia, our population is estimated at roughly 32 million. As we are entering the recovery phase, more Malaysians are able to come out from their homes to do their daily activities, and in a few weeks and months to come, schools and universities will start to open up their doors again to students.

Imagine the number of face masks used per day by us Malaysians, even if only 80 per cent of the population is out and about. Now, imagine the use of face masks per day, globally; disposable face masks manufacturers report an increased demand for their products due to COVID-19.

A protection measure

Now, everyone including the public is wearing for prevention as well as a protection measure in this post-COVID-19 phase. These surgical face masks are supposed to be worn only once and disposed of after single use. As a result of the increased use by the population, there have been reports of an increase in face masks disposed together with general waste.

Previously, the use of these masks was usually limited to research labs or hospitals or clinics. These masks are considered clinical waste as they could harbour/carry potential infectious materials be it from the outside surface or the inner surface of the masks and are disposed by special waste contractors, not the usual Alam Flora. Worryingly, there have also been reports of used face masks being reused by the public. Reusing or recycling these face masks is not recommended; used surgical face masks are regarded as a potential clinical hazard.

Hence, the next question will be, where and how these face masks used by the general public is disposed? According to MOH directives based on WHO recommendations, you are supposed to fold it and wrap it in a small plastic bag or tissue and then dispose it in a closed-lid bin. This guideline is to reduce the potential health risk to the waste collector workers if the face masks are just being disposed openly and mix together with other waste.

However, is this being practised by most Malaysians? Do we always carry with us small plastic bags or tissue paper? Will this act of disposing used surgical face mask in a plastic bag create another environmental problem by increasing the amount of plastic waste?

Some offices / stores / malls have taken their own initiative to prepare designated bins to dispose only used face masks. This is a good initiative as it helps in segregating the used face masks from other waste beforehand and littering, hence reducing the health risk issue. However, this does not answer the issue of reducing the usage of these face masks. Normally, they should be incinerated if they are being treated as medical waste.

There has been an increase of face masks left as litter around car parks or on the road side as well as worldwide reports of used face masks and even gloves found in the Mediterranean Sea as well as piling up on beaches in Hong Kong. This creates not only health risks but also serious environmental risks. In Malaysia, the Klang River is now being closely monitored after authorities found face masks, gloves, and sanitiser bottles in the river. It is a growing concern that needs to be dealt as soon as possible and this requires cooperation and strategy from various levels of organisations.

Another issue with making sure these used surgical face masks are being disposed in a correct and safe manner is that waste-collecting companies have found used face masks and gloves in recycling bins. Disposable face masks and gloves are not recyclable through conventional recycling facilities, hence, disposing of them with other recycling wastes leads to contaminating waste that could be recycled. This also puts recycling workers at risk for COVID-19 infection, highlighting the urgent need of educating the public of the importance of disposing the face masks properly.

Addressing face mask disposal issue

Currently, used disposable face masks and gloves that are being thrown as general waste by the public will end up in the landfill with the rest. Since wearing face masks will be the new normal, this is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently as we enter the post-COVID-19 era. Therefore, there has been a great push in the area of producing reusable face masks, which are mostly cotton based that either come with a filter layer inserted or without. The ones with the added on filter will provide better protection because, when there is no such filter, cotton mask offers the least level of protection against filtering virus or even microbes. Nevertheless, in the absence of better masks, it’s better than nothing – it can still offer some protection against contaminated droplets. The plus points about these cotton face masks are that they can be disinfected repeatedly and are also biodegradable.

For those suffering the financial impacts of the lockdown or movement control order, homemade cotton mask may be the only choice for some people due to its low cost and reusability. Despite the enticing positive points to the environment, companies designing these cloth face masks or even the homemade ones need to bear in mind the level of safety and protection of the cloth face masks that they are making. These cloth face masks must at least adhere to the WHO recommendations and should be washed after each use.

Therefore, there is an urgency to educate the public about the proper ways to dispose of face masks correctly and this can be done by immediately engaging with the relevant authorities; i.e. local government authorities, relevant government agencies, and waste management corporations in the wake of the surge in mask-based rubbish post-COVID-19. Prophet Muhammad PBUH once said; “The best among you is the one who doesn’t harm others with his tongue and hands.” Wearing the mask to protect ourselves is good, but it’s not just about ourselves, by disposing the masks properly, we are doing everybody else’s safety a favour, including the environment.

Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) will be doing a “Safe and Proper Face Mask Disposal Campaign, #USIMjagasemua. The main goal is to ensure that the public is well educated about the importance and impact of proper face mask disposal.

It’s up to us now, my fellow Malaysians.

Let’s do our part, by acting responsibly and rationally.

For our health and environment sake.

We’ve got this, Malaysia.

Door closes behind.

Dispose used face mask in a separate bin.

Wash hands for 20 seconds.

Cue music: Baby Shark (Safe at Last)

#USIMjagasemua

-- BERNAMA

Dr Nuruliza Roslan is Deputy Director of the Islamic Science Institute, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of BERNAMA)