If only we could reach as many parts of the planet, as our discarded rubbish, how well travelled we would be. Now in not much more than a year, the Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), recommended to contain the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, is adding to the tons of rubbish threatening the planet’s ecosystems.
We hear much about the inevitable re-ordering of world affairs, as a consequence of lessons learned from the effects of Covid-19, but judging by the way we dispose of our refuse, little, if anything has changed. And despite much talk of sustainable development, little has changed in the way we manufacture what we are destined to throw away, sooner or later.
In little over a year, our discarded face masks have reached every nook and cranny of our planet, adding to the already catastrophic plastic waste that is slowly poisoning the planet’s environment.
It may come as news to some of us, that it is not just the gloves, but even our face masks contain plastic.
From our streets, and parking lots, our discarded face masks need no visas. They travel on the wind, into our rivers, to be carried into the seas and oceans of every continent.
There, in a space of only weeks, they are worn down to microplastics (smaller than 5mm), and nano plastics (smaller than one micrometer).
Ingested by marine animals, they quickly enter the food chain, consumed by both animals and humans, causing varying degrees of harm.
The scale of the problem is staggering. Researchers estimate that globally we are using 129 billion face masks every month, or 3 million every minute.
Most countries, including Rwanda’s environmental management Authority (REMA) have issued guidelines for the disposal of Coronavirus PPE. But beyond what is disposed of by medical facilities as hazardous waste, there are no easy ways to police safe, responsible disposal of PPE.
Like many environmental problems facing the world however, there is a way to a solution, but rarely the will.
Researchers suggest special recycling bins for PPE, especially face masks, alongside strict standardized guidelines on the disposal of face masks. They point out that it is actually possible to manufacture face masks from fully biodegradable materials, like cotton. These cannot only be washed and reused, but cause no environmental harm, when eventually properly disposed of.
It remains to be seen, however, if there is indeed, the pandemic leads to a rethink on the disposal not only of PPE but of waste generally.