Special report: Mountain of Masks (1)

Masks found scattered among household trash at Burangkeng dumpsite in West Java, Indonesia.ST PHOTO: LINDA YULISMAN

A Growing environmental problem emerges amid Covid-19 pandemic.

Part one of a special report.

When you think of the Covid-19 pandemic, one item probably symbolises it more than any other: the disposable mask.

Across the globe, mandatory mask wearing has saved countless lives and made everyday life safer.

But the surge in mask use has a dark side. It is estimated that billions of masks are used daily across the globe and this is creating a growing environmental problem that could last much longer than the pandemic.

Disposable masks are made from plastics, which can take decades to break down in the environment.

In addition to mask usage, the pandemic has led to a surge in other plastic waste, from single-use food containers and bags to huge amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) from hospitals and businesses.

Conservationists and non-governmental organisations are increasingly concerned that a lot of the plastic waste, especially Covid-19-related waste, is ending up in landfills, waterways and oceans, adding to the millions of tonnes of plastic waste already dumped into the world’s oceans every year.

Dr George Leonard, chief scientist at US-based Ocean Conservancy, said: “Without question, pandemic-related gear like gloves and masks are hurting sea life.

“Sea birds, turtles and other ocean animals can get tangled up in mask elastics, or choke on masks and gloves that end up along shorelines or in the water.”

Mr Subhash Chandran, 32, knows the threat well. He has been diving underwater to clean up the seabed in the coastal city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, India.

Last November, when volunteers did their first underwater cleanup during the pandemic, they saw the ocean choked with masks, gloves and empty medicine sachets.

“Normally we find a lot of plastic bottles and wrappers. After the pandemic, we found 1,500kg of mostly N95 masks, surgical masks, tablet packets and gloves.

“I consider the ocean my second home, but it is a Covid-19 dump yard today,” Mr Chandran said.

In Jakarta and Manila, large amounts of Covid-19 waste, from masks to gowns, are dumped in landfills or along the roadside. Some find their way into rivers and seas.

While officials have been trying to improve on collection and disposal, especially from hospitals, large amounts are still being dumped rather than incinerated.

The Philippines ranks second in South-east Asia with the most number of Covid-19 cases after Indonesia.

“We can just imagine how staggering the figures would be for the disposable personal protective equipment being used daily and discarded,” said Ms Gloria Ramos, vice-president of conservation organisation Oceana Philippines.

“Single-use plastic is already a problem. What we’re seeing on the surface is only the tip of the iceberg.”

“There’s so much lying on the ocean floor, and now not just plastics but face masks too,” said Ms Ramos.

Unmasking the threat

So how great is the threat from masks?

That is still unclear but evidence from The Straits Times correspondents in Indonesia, India and the Philippines point to worrying signs. ST also interviewed a variety of experts who point to an emerging problem.

Dr Denise Hardesty, a marine plastic waste scientist from Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, said more data is needed to get a clearer picture.

“One would anticipate that it would be an issue, particularly because people are going to be much less likely to want to pick up a littered mask on the ground than they would, say, a candy wrapper, because people would have fear around Covid-19,” she told ST.

She noted that the coronavirus outbreak has led to a huge increase in mask usage but in South-east Asia, it was already common to wear masks prior to the pandemic, so more data is needed on pre-pandemic and current mask usage.

What is clear, though, is that masks and other PPE waste are already washing up on beaches around the globe.

International Coastal Cleanup run by Ocean Conservancy has recorded tens of thousands of pieces of PPE as of early November, with more detailed data expected in the coming months, Dr Leonard said.

In a separate coastal cleanup, thousands of PPE items, mainly masks and gloves, were also recorded during a three-week waste collection exercise involving participants from 78 countries during September and October last year. The cleanup was organised by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an industry body.

Mask manufacturing has rapidly become a multi-billion-dollar industry to meet spiralling demand.

Last June, researchers estimated that 129 billion masks were used and disposed of every month. At roughly 3.5g each, that equates to 451,500 tonnes of masks a month and would cover an area roughly three times the size of Singapore.

One of the authors of the study, Professor Tony Walker from the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in Canada, told ST that estimate may now be conservative.

“Now it’s a full-blown pandemic. With many countries having mandatory non-medical mask wearing in public places, the numbers would be even more staggering.”

A study published last September by British site finder.com estimated that Britons were sending more than 1.6 billion disposable masks to landfills each month.

Forever plastic

With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing, single-use masks will continue to be used in large numbers for some time to come.

“We are in a health crisis at a global level and there’s a strong encouragement across all countries in terms of the use of single-use or reusable masks. And I think that number will only go up as we go forward,” said Mr Jacob Duer, chief executive of the Singapore-based Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which is working on solutions to reduce plastic waste globally and boost recycling.

But he said in the long term, single-use mask usage will not necessarily continue to rise. “I think it will see a flattening out at one point because we will transition to reusable masks.”

Asia remains a key focus for the group because of the huge amounts of mismanaged plastic waste in the region.

The Burangkeng dumpsite on the eastern edge of Indonesia’s capital provides an example. Surgical masks and rubber gloves are mixed in with daily household rubbish, as goats scavenge the trash for food.

Waste picker Oom Komalasari, 48, said prior to the pandemic, she often found medical waste such as needles and intravenous fluid bottles scattered among other garbage. Now, there are more.

“Nearby factories dispose of their masks and gloves here, and many more have been thrown here lately,” she said.

For Dr Leonard, the surge in production and use of Covid-19-linked single-use plastics will likely haunt humanity and the environment for years to come. “Perhaps what’s so troubling is that plastics never break down, so we really can’t operate with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude,” he said.


This article, first published by The Straits Times, was shared as as part of the World News Day initiative