News | Covid-19
The novel coronavirus pandemic has the world gripped in a hygiene frenzy as citizens scramble to purchase masks and gloves.
Most of these purchases contain single-use gear, the prices of which have been marked up dramatically. As much as wearing masks and gloves correctly serve as precautionary buffers against contracting the virus, to an extent, this now poses a new environmental issue – a resurgence of mass single-use product littering.
This has already become an issue in Hong Kong, documented by non-profit organisation OceansAsia.
Co-founder Gary Stokes and his team recently surveyed the remote Soko Islands in Hong Kong, and immediately noticed an accumulation of masks and gloves littering the uninhabited shoreline.
The NPO said in a post that they are six weeks into investigating where the debris may have come from, but the pandemic was the sole cause.
They pointed out that most of Hong Kong’s population of more than 7.4 million suddenly began wearing masks, sometimes more than one a day, which caused the surge of pollution.
This may not be the only beach battling to curb litter associated with the pandemic, and Hong Kong is definitely not the only city where masks and gloves are being worn.
Detroit Free Press recently reported that gloves, masks and disinfecting wipes have begun littering the parking lots of supermarkets, with patrons reportedly discarding products on the pavement as they finish shopping.
Due to lockdown restrictions, it is difficult to confirm an increase in personal protective equipment (PPE) along South Africa’s coastlines.
But Sustainable Seas Trust (SST) executive director Stacey Webb said it is possible that an increase in PPE litter will be observed should the pandemic become severe. She added that due to Africa being at the beginning stages of the pandemic, it is not too late to prevent a potential mass pollution situation by raising awareness among citizens and organisations.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) director Cecilia Kinuthia-Njenga said one noticeable item increasingly littering coastlines was the blue hand-cleaning cloth dispensed in shopping centres to disinfect trolley handles.
PlasticsSA has reported an increase of blue cloth in Plettenberg Bay, Mthatha, Hermanus and Capricorn Park.
“We could, in future, probably expect more PPE products as the usage is high nationally during the lockdown period. Possibly more in the rainy season as 80% of plastics litter are from upstream sources and transported by rivers to the beaches,” Njenga explained.
Fortunately, lockdown has meant a possible decline in fast food litter such as single-use coffee cups and takeaway containers, but because no clean-ups are taking place, accurate data cannot be provided.
Single-use masks and gloves have already started washing up on beaches in Asia, and these items pose risks to both human health and the environment. Picture: Supplied
So how is PPE discarded in a way that does not negatively affect an already stressed environment?
According to Njenga, latex gloves, made from natural rubber, typically biodegrade within 24 months, faster than other glove types such as nitrile glove, made from a form of synthetic rubber called Nitrile Butadiene.
Nitrile can take decades to hundreds of years to biodegrade in landfill.
However, nitrile and rubber are not yet recyclable in South Africa, and although some latex gloves are made from biodegradable plastics, they will only break down under industrial composting conditions, explained Webb.
Webb added that because gloves and masks are considered hazardous medical waste due to the highly contagious virus, they must be disposed of according to health department guidelines.
Unfortunately, this means there is no sustainable way to dispose of masks and gloves.
Health department guidelines state that utility gloves should be cleaned with soap and water and decontaminated with 0.5% hypochlorite solution, and that single-use gloves should be disposed of in a bin with a lid and disposed of as infectious waste.
However, lockdown restrictions prevent ordinary residents from accessing infectious waste disposal sites. Webb suggests that household bins could be placed outside to help kill any potential viruses.
Njenga suggested the possible use of crematoriums or furnaces to destroy gloves and masks as an interim arrangement.
She added that public-private partnerships could potentially help residents dispose of gloves and waste by organising for waste to be taken to recycling sites, but emphasised that the uncontrolled dumping and burning of gloves and masks is likely to increase the spread of Covid-19, and should not be practised.
“Open burning of single-use litter of masks and gloves has the potential to expose people to prolonged toxic emissions of harmful gases. The major threat of healthcare risk waste (HCRW) is the transmission of diseases.
“Pathogenic microorganisms can enter the body through punctures, cuts in the skin, mucous membranes in the mouth, or inhalation,” she explained.
“Unfortunately, incineration facilities and infrastructure for citizens are lacking,” Njenga lamented.
PPE litter has long-term detrimental environmental effects as well.
Webb warned that not only would masks and gloves be consumed by animals, causing health problems, the gradual breaking down of masks and gloves would contribute to more microplastics, which are known to cause health risks as toxin poisons accumulate in human and animal tissue.
Another potential issue is the cross-contamination of used masks and gloves.
Disposable items are preferred, in order to minimise the handling of contaminated PPE, as outlined by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This applies most to health workers, but seeing as the majority of the general public do not have access to reusable masks and gloves, reusable masks and gloves are a not a familiar sight during the current pandemic.
Njenga said the inadequate management of single-use masks and gloves can only aggravate the pandemic.
“By blocking sewerage systems and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other pests, this type of waste can raise the risk of transmission of vector-borne diseases.
“Grazing animals ingest the littered gloves and masks due to their indiscriminate feeding habits and, once ingested, the animals suffer indigestion, immune suppression, ruminal obstruction, loss of weight, depression, reduced milk yield and bloat. This leads to increased veterinary costs to care for the animals, most of which die due to serious health complications.
“The waste can also choke waterways and exacerbate natural disasters such as flooding, leading to deaths, loss of property, injury and the spread of diseases.”
She added that marine animals often became entangled in gloves and masks, and ingested gloves as they resembled jellyfish, causing more damage to the marine ecosystem.
The conversation around the necessity of masks was still continuing, although the global consensus is that they do play a role in preventing the spread of contaminated droplets that spread the virus.
However, head-to-toe PPE is not necessary for those who do not regularly come into direct contact with a Covid-19 patent, or those who have respiratory symptoms.
Unless interventions are put in place for the proper disposal of single-use masks and gloves destined for landfill sites, pavements and oceans, they will continue to pile up around the world and create an unsavoury, dangerous environment.
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