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Editorial

Warning: Discard properly

/ 05:30 AM September 13, 2020

In March, as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health crisis and COVID-19 slowed down human activity nearly worldwide, #natureishealing briefly trended on social media. Suddenly, there were bright-blue skies thanks to fewer cars and less smog, wild animals were seen roaming urban areas, and Venice’s characteristically murky canals became clear.

But six months on, it’s also clear the pandemic has spawned a new environmental problem — or is aggravating existing ones. The perennial headache of garbage disposal, for example, has become more vexing with the mandatory use of face masks, and now face shields, as protection against COVID-19, and the exponential increase in both medical waste such as used personal protective equipment (PPE) from hospitals, and household rubbish from millions of families forced to stay home under lockdown.

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Last April, Mark Benfield, an oceanographer who studies plastic pollution and ecology, started tracking PPE litter in different countries. He noted that the most common PPE waste were gloves, followed by wipes and masks, all of which eventually find their way to the oceans. Researchers estimate that about 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves are being used and thrown away monthly during this pandemic. Environmentalists have promoted the use of cloth masks and protective suits that can be washed and reused, but more people have been opting for the cheaply available single-use surgical masks, while some medical practitioners have questioned the efficacy of reusable PPE as protection against the virus.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) warned in July that the incorrect disposal of PPE could pose a new threat to the environment. “If only 1% of the masks were disposed of incorrectly and perhaps dispersed in nature, this would result in 10 million masks per month in the environment. Considering that the weight of each mask is about 4 grams, this would entail the dispersion of over 40,000 kilograms of plastic in nature, a dangerous scenario that must be [defused],” said WWF.

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The Philippines alone collected over 19,000 metric tons of infectious wastes, including PPE suspected of harboring pathogens, from April to July, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as reported in this paper last Sept. 6. In Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 originated, there was a massive increase in medical waste—to 247 tons on March 1 from only 40-50 tons a day before the outbreak.

An article, “COVID-19’s unsustainable waste management,” published in the Science journal in June said that managing medical and domestic waste safely is crucial to successfully containing COVID-19. “Mismanagement,” it said, “can also lead to increased environmental pollution. All countries facing excess waste should evaluate their management systems to incorporate disaster preparedness and resilience.”

But lockdowns have caused limited movements and reduced manpower, making it even more difficult for the timely collection, recycling, treatment, and disposal of these wastes. There has also been a lack of public education and awareness on the proper disposal of possibly contaminated waste such as used face masks.

Surgical masks are made of nonwoven polypropylene fabric, which is nonbiodegradable and could take hundreds of years to break down in the environment. Under Republic Act No. 6969 (Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act of 1990) and RA 9003 (Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000), face masks are considered infectious waste and must be segregated from other wastes for at least three days—the minimum period that the virus can survive outside a host.

The United Kingdom has issued a “special guidance” on the cleaning and disposal of waste for those who have shown symptoms and are in isolation; these guidelines can be used as a general model for managing waste during this pandemic. Among the recommendations: “Personal waste (such as used tissues) and disposable cleaning cloths can be stored securely within disposable rubbish bags. These bags should be placed into another bag, tied securely and kept separate from other waste. This should be put aside for at least 72 hours before being put in your usual external household waste bin.” (In Jingdezhen, China, Benfield noted that waste bins just for PPE have been set up in the city, allowing for the safer and easier retrieval of these potentially harmful materials.)

On top of having to wrestle with a pandemic, the world is also drowning in health and medical refuse. Donatella Bianchi, president of WWF Italy, reminds everyone that just as citizens have followed government directives to stay at home to contain the virus, “now it is necessary that they prove equally responsible in managing individual protection devices that must be disposed of properly and not dispersed in nature.”

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