The COVID-19 pandemic sparks a surge in marine pollution due to the global increase in use of single-use masks, latex gloves, personal protective equipment (PPE), including alcohol and hand sanitizer bottles.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, the experts had warned of the threat posed to oceans and marine life by plummeting plastic pollution. These grew substantially as countries around the world confront the COVID-19 pandemic, considering the vast amounts of PPE products that countries are now using in order keep people safe from coronavirus-carrying airborne droplets.
Most of the Philippines’ 100 million people have for months been wearing about one to two single-use face masks everyday, in the hope of warding off the COVID-19, which has infected more than 100,000 people.
Disposable masks may feel like soft cotton, but they’re almost all made from non-biodegradable material such as polypropylene which take hundreds of years to break down.
Improper disposal of masks, which contain respiratory droplets of people who wore them, may endanger the health of others who pick them and then touch their own faces.
This also possess threats to marine life and wildlife habitats, as discarded masks and PPE products are piling up on our oceans, floating like jellyfish. Species like seabirds and sea turtles often choke on plastic debris, mistaking it for food.
Beyond that, there’s the risk of chemical contamination — as plastic debris slowly breaks apart into tiny fragments known as microplastics, it releases chemicals that may be harmful to the animals that end up eating it. Those animals include humans: Plastic ingested by smaller fish gets incorporated into the bodies of progressively larger animals, all the way up the food chain until it arrives on our dinner plates.
There’s more to the overabundance of plastic face masks and sanitizer bottles making their way into the oceans. Plastic is a huge hazard before it’s even produced, as Petrochemical factories like plastic production plants are notorious for their disproportionate impacts on the communities. Toxic air emissions from these facilities have been linked to a litany of health problems, including cancer, heart disease, and reproductive and developmental disorders.
The citizens, communities, and local governments must do more to address the environmental consequences of disposable masks and PPEs.
In accordance to the Implementing Guidelines of DENR Administrative Order No. 22-2013, used masks and PPEs from hospitals, Barangay Health Centers, and clinics are considered hazardous (infectious) waste and should be treated carried out by Transport, Storage and Disposal (TSD) Facility.
As a precautionary measure, used masks and PPEs from households with Person/s Under Investigation (PUI), and Person/s Under Monitoring (PUM) should be treated as hazardous wastes as well and must be segregated into a separate bin or trash can prior to collection by TSD Facility personnel or crew.
Furthermore, used masks and PPEs from offices, work places, and homes without PUIs and PUMs may be treated as residual waste. Thus, it must be stored separately, collected by eco-aides or garbage collectors equipped with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and be disposed into Category 3 or 4 Sanitary Landfill accordingly.
As for individuals, observe proper disposal of used face masks and PPEs. We must know the importance of proper waste management and act to ensure a green recovery that incentivizes sustainability. This is not just about protecting ourselves, we need to protect everybody and protect the marine life and our world by disposing masks and PPE products properly.