Consumption, Health

The Double-Edged Sword: We Have A Masking Problem!

Global Initiatives | Sep 11, 2020


Photo by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash

This is an original article by Haziqah and edited by Global Initiatives.

With the world thrown into disarray from COVID-19, countries have stepped up in an attempt to eradicate the deadly virus. An increased use of masks have curbed the spread of the disease, proving the effectiveness of masks in keeping the infection rates down. Since then, masks have been made mandatory as it plays a crucial role in fighting the virus. 

Masks have indeed become a symbol of this pandemic. However, the larger public needs to be more conscious of new problems arising from mask usage.

The reason why this is important is because very few of us have considered the double-edged nature of using masks in Singapore. Unknown to many, the surge in masks is contributing to an alarming crisis the world that is already trying to deal with – plastic pollution. 

If left unabated, this pattern of increased waste will likely exacerbate the problems of plastic pollution, and cause devastation to our environment.

Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire 

Every year an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic enter our ocean, adding to the already 150 million tonnes of pollution in our marine environments. The increased use of plastics from masks and PPE during this pandemic has added another 66,000 tonnes of waste from just the UK alone. 

In just 9 months since the start of the pandemic, plastic pollution has brought to the forefront a question of how we should best prevent pollution even in times of pandemics. 

Source by Ocean ConservancySource by Ocean Conservancy

Masks being the most prominent culprit, along with its accomplices – gloves and hand sanitizer bottles – have made its way into our water bodies. French non-profit Opération Mer Propre, defines this as the emerging trend of “COVID waste”. Their recent ocean clean-up in the Mediterranean saw an increasing amount of plastic waste as a direct result of this pandemic. 

An issue the non-profit raised is that aquatic lifeforms often mistake it for food, choking and thereby endangering themselves. 

“More masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean” – Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre

This same problem has been reported in the oceans surrounding Hong Kong. On OceanAsia’s recent trip to the Soko islands in Hong Kong, they discovered 70 discarded masks within a 100 meter stretch of the beach. Just a week later, 30 more masks have been seen washed ashore. 

Despite efforts to combat plastic pollution in 2019 with a host of ocean clean-ups being conducted world-wide, we are still struggling with the skyrocketing plastic pollution. The 8 million tonne of plastic entering the ocean each year is bound to grow as countries struggle to combat this pandemic. 

A Soup of Plastics 

It is almost a wonder to find pristine waters in our oceans and lakes now. Plastics, in its various shapes and forms, can be seen in most beaches, showing the invisible currents of plastic waste improperly discarded in the oceans. 

In order to understand why our urban landscapes are burdened by the sight of plastics, one must understand how this has come to be. 

The reality is that single-use masks take approximately 450 years to completely decompose. In which the process produces a by-product called Microplastics, which are small pieces of plastics that pollute the environment. 

Microplastics are first ingested by aquatic life, and travels up the food chain eventually ending in us consuming them too. As researchers have found chemical traces of plastic in our tissue, it is noted that it could potentially pose a threat to our health. This creates an ecological conundrum that scientists are still trying to fix. 

Furthermore, as microplastics decompose, chemicals are released and added to the toxic waste floating in our oceans. These released chemicals have been proven to cause a variety of health problems such as obesity and developmental delays in children.

Photo by the author(Photo by Haziqah). Microplastics along the MalaysiaーSingapore coastline by Ayer Ayer Project.

While some may previously dismiss this problem for the future, it is now evident that this should not be an issue that we can turn a blind eye to. 

In order for us to address this, we need to be more conscious about how, when, and why we use plastics, and be cognizant of our contribution to plastic waste. 

Being ecologically conscious will enable us to use and dispose of plastic responsibly, lest we cause more irreversible damage to our environment — now exacerbated by the pandemic. We need to take action to ensure that the damage caused by the pandemic is not irreversible.  

Unmasking The Problem 

There is a continued need to maintain sustainability efforts, moreso during the pandemic where most of the attention is directed at combating the virus. This is an issue that not only concerns environmentalists, but every individual.

Simply modifying our everyday choices, we can protect ourselves from the risk of infection while avoiding additional harm to our environment.

Start By Choosing To Reuse

The increased use of disposal masks have exponentially increased the amount of plastic waste entering our water bodies. Improper disposal of masks have further exacerbated this problem. #flattenthecurve and switch out the single-use masks for reusable masks.

Reserve the surgical and N95 masks to health professionals who need them more.

Hands Off The Gloves!

Many people may think that gloves can protect us against the virus, but that is only true if it is properly used. In fact, it is actually safer to practice the everyday good habit of washing your hands frequently as opposed to wearing gloves. 

According to health experts, the use of gloves may lead to a false sense of security, leading to more people touching other objects with these contaminated gloves on. Therefore, the improper use of gloves may lead to further transmission of the virus. 

Spread Awareness 

Educate your friends and family about the effects of misusing disposal masks and gloves. We often underestimate the influence we have on our peers, colleagues, neighbours and family members to also care about environmental sustainability.

Photo by Victor He on UnsplashPhoto by Victor He on Unsplash

Human beings are social creatures and we’ve developed the tendency to compare our behaviours to those around us to pick up on social cues. By simply choosing to reuse, reduce, and recycle, even in the midst of this pandemic, we can urge those around us to live more sustainably.

If you’re eager to do more, volunteering with family or friends at beach clean-ups can help to stop more plastics from entering our oceans!

The chains of habits are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. Let’s also make a conscious effort to create awareness about single-use plastics and PPE around our social circles. This is important lest we forgo the momentum that is required to help drive a sustainable movement.


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