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Improper disposal of masks poses new threat to environment

By Masila Thuvi | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-08-20 10:07
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A health worker looks on as she waits to give a dose of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine during a vaccine rollout for teachers in Meyerton, south of Johannesburg, South Africa, June 23, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread in Africa, prompting massive campaigns to gain access to vaccines, the wearing of masks in public has become the best option to slow down the spread of the virus.

Face masks are being worn everywhere-in shopping areas, hospitals, offices, schools and homes.

The continuous and correct use of a mask prevents the community spread of the coronavirus by minimizing the circulation of respiratory droplets from infected people who may not be aware that they are infected.

Most countries in Africa have made the wearing of masks in public places compulsory, with violators facing hefty fines or incarceration.

In early 2020, organizations such as the Pandemic Action Network, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the African Union's Office of the Youth Envoy, the African Youth Front on Coronavirus, and Resolve to Save Lives organized Africa Mask Week, a campaign to encourage people across the continent to wear masks and stem the spread of COVID-19.

According to the University of Southern Denmark, recent studies have estimated that about 129 billion masks are being used worldwide every month, with most of them being single use masks.

As an African proverb says, too much of a good thing is bad.

Despite the huge number of people being told to wear masks, little guidance has been given on how to dispose of or recycle them safely. Moreover, billions of masks will be needed in Africa as countries begin to lift lockdown restrictions.

Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming.

The increased production and consumption of materials that protect against COVID-19 has resulted in the massive introduction of biohazardous waste into the environment, in addition to littering both the land and the sea. Improper disposal of such waste could also lead to disease outbreaks, since they can act as a medium for propagating microbes such as invasive pathogens.

Experts have warned that single-use masks pose a huge risk to the environment, since they contain plastic microfibers, with approximately 70 percent of their composition being nonbiodegradable.

This comes at a time when the battle to fight the adverse effects of plastics on our environment is still fresh in our minds. The masks are progressively becoming a new player in the mix, leading to the question of how to safely dispose of them.

In most of the urban centers in Africa, disposable masks have found their way to the sewer systems, pathways, public parks and roadsides, a deplorable site to behold.

In Kenya, following the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, the National Environment Management Authority, in line with the waste management protocol of the Ministry of Health, developed guidelines on the separation and disposal of healthcare waste.

Under the guidelines, masks are not supposed to be mixed in with household waste, though some households still do mix them.

Improperly discarded masks may also risk spreading the virus to waste collectors, litter pickers or members of the public who first come across such litter. A study by The Lancet Microbe journal on the stability of the coronavirus in different environments indicates that a detectable level of virus could still be present on the outer layer of a surgical mask for up to seven days.

As COVID-19 prevention efforts intensify across Africa, it will be worthwhile to create awareness to safeguard the environment through proper management of the disposal of safety materials used in the fight against the pandemic

The author is a Nairobi-based independent business and finance consultant.

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