The Mask: Where Is It Going?

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With the lockdown being in force for about six weeks now, dolphins have started to show up in stretches of River Ganga, where people had seen this beautiful specie three decades ago. News of rivers flowing clean and healthy have been coming from across the nation and people like me are happy about that.

Industrial pollution has certainly dropped drastically. However, the contamination of our rivers and water bodies from the sewage and other wastes generated from our homes and colonies has not dropped. People are inside their homes but their wastes are not. While there might have been a bit of reduction in our food wastes, considering the fact that many people have become a bit austere in their food habits, we have exponentially added to another type of wastes: masks.

On March 18, as India was yet to rise completely to actions on COVID-19, I tweeted how disposal of masks could be the next big crisis we may have to deal with. Friends asked me if I had any statistical
calculation of how voluminous was going to be our wastes from use of single-use masks, surgical gloves and other single use stuff. I certainly did not have any figure but had apprehended that the new kinds of wastes to be generated from our response to this pandemic were going to be a worry. I apprehended it right.

While we can see and manage the wastes that we generate in our homes and neighbourhood, most of the common people can hardly know where these wastes are going. Many simply don’t bother. Conservationists from across the globe have warned that ever since the COVID response begun, the oceans have been at the receiving end of more plastic pollution through discarded disposable face masks and gloves. Our oceans are already highly polluted due to tiny plastic particles and
other waste materials that we generate in unmanageable volumes each day and discard.

The surgical masks are made using materials like polypropylene. Such non-woven plastic products do great damage to the marine life and overall health of oceans. These plastic particles, once they make their roads to the oceans, keep swirling in the ocean waves and then break down to tiny pieces. These micro-plastics have been a big cause of pollution of our oceans. Unregulated use and disposal of such masks during the COVID response has increased the pollution for sure.

Environmentalists from across the world have also raised concerns about the fact that these disposable wastes have been littering around in our backyards, roadsides, free spaces, waterways and elsewhere. In fact, doctors and other experts have been warning the common people not to buy surgical masks but there have been issues with availability of other masks in the market and the costs. Even in India, we find many people wearing surgical masks and gloves meant to be used only by the frontline workers who are supposed to dispose them safely under standard protocols.

Indians have of late woken up to making cloth masks and several positive stories are being circulated in social media about people, including politicians, IAS officers, social workers and others, making
such masks and distributing to public. That’s certainly a good thing to happen. However, the single use masks are still in circulation and use and have already become a big cause of worry.

The need of the hour is therefore to see that a greater awareness is built among the people on use of reusable masks. For the government agencies that are giving us daily updates on COVID cases and response measures, it would be good to give us an update on how are they disposing the masks, gloves, other wastes including medical wastes. Proper disposal and management of such wastes as per standard protocols is of utmost importance. This will make our COVID response more effective and protect our soil and water resources from getting further contaminated, helping us keeping other hazards at bay.

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