Face masks, gloves, face shields have become a pivotal part of our lives. They have become a symbol of resistance against the coronavirus. In India, the states too have made covering the face with masks a mandatory exercise to check the spread of the virus. Those not complying with the order face a heavy penalty. There is evidence to back the theory that masks can curb the spread of the virus. While people are adapting to the new normal, there has been a surge in the demand for face masks worldwide. Frontline Covid warriors and people employed in the essential services have relied on plastic-based, single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gowns to shield themselves from the coronavirus. The result has been a quickly growing mountain of plastic waste.
A mountainous problem
Global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to skyrocket from an estimated USD 800 million in 2019 to USD 166 billion in 2020, according to business consulting firm Grand View Research. The negative spill-over effects of plastic waste on fisheries, tourism, and maritime transport, for example, add up to an estimated USD 40 billion each year, according to the UN Environment Programme.
According to UCTAD, 75% of the estimated mask could end up in landfills or the sea. Discarded single-use face masks used to stop the spread of coronavirus could be causing significant harm to the environment.
Kapil Bhatia, CEO of UniMask, said that most of these masks contain or are made of polypropylene, which does not break down quickly. Polypropylene is basically a form of plastic. Marine plastic pollution is a serious problem.
"It is estimated that every year, over eight million tons of plastic enter our oceans. This plastic does not disappear but rather slowly breaks down into micro-plastic, which enters food chains, with devastating effect. As the pandemic is likely to drag on, we should address these plastic pollution issues immediately," he said.
How the issue can be controlled
The immediate measure to overcome this potential threat is by reducing the use of the disposable mask as much as possible, he said.
"Though for the frontline health workers, they have no option but to use disposal masks and PPE Kits, the least that we can do to help them and help us, is eliminate the use of disposable masks from our lives. If more than 90 per cent of the population resorts to using reusable masks, leaving it to be used only by the frontline health workers, what we are looking at then in the near future is a controllable issue and not an uncontrollable one," Kapil said.
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Kapil said, face coverings don’t need to be surgical quality to be effective.
"The most environmentally-friendly option is a reusable cloth mask. Although, any mask is better than no mask. You should always wash your reusable cloth mask after each time you use it," he said.
The material most commonly used to make the disposable mask is polypropylene, either 20 or 25 grams per square meter (gsm) in density. These masks are ultra-lightweight and pocket friendly as compared to reusable masks that is why such materials are used despite the environmental threats it possesses.