Face masks add to pollution woes
Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
Since May 4 this year when it became mandatory for Zimbabweans to wear face masks in public spaces to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), greater attention has been more on human survival than anything else.
The lockdown remains in place and the wearing of face masks has become part of our daily life as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, little thought or attention has been given to huge quantities of disposable plastic masks which have a devastating effect on the environment, piling more woes to the country’s growing litter problem.
Every week, there has been an influx of imports, bought and donated disposable face masks, coming into the country.
In the wake of the fight against the deadly Covid–19 pandemic, the impact of the disposable masks has taken a back seat, adding to woes related to the disposal of plastic and other non-biodegradable waste such as kaylites, disposable nappies and pads.
Every year, millions of disposable nappies are thrown away in Zimbabwe as it accounts for a sizeable amount of household waste.
Kaylites were banned, but they continue to be used widely in the country, piling more pressure on environmental pollution in Zimbabwe.
Plastic masks, personal protective equipment PPEs, kaylites and disposable baby diapers are producing an incredible amount of environmental waste.
The vast majority of disposable masks, nappies, PPEs, kaylites and other major polluting products are not recyclable and must be thrown away with general waste.
This means they will probably end up in landfill or being burnt.
With the rising cases of Covid–19, the use of disposable masks and other PPE has led to a rise in the consumption of the products.
The upsurge in the use of disposables is leading to grave environmental consequences such as the disposal of waste in landfills, open spaces, streams and rivers across many parts of the country.
Tied with reckless plastic disposal and other electronic waste, the pollution of water systems is becoming severe, pushing up the cost of water purification and production.
The Covid–19 induced development of new markets and the rising demand for the PPE in many parts of the world has made the disposable masks and other various PPE industries anxious to accelerate the expansion of their products into these new frontiers.
While saving lives matters most, the damage to the environment is fast becoming intense as most local authorities are unable to collect waste.
In Zimbabwe, there are many towns, cities and rapidly urbanising rural areas where little or no service delivery exist to remove waste.
Disposable masks, PPE, disposable diapers, kaylites and an array of plastic products are discarded on landfills, open spaces, along roadsides and bridges, where this waste often ends up directly in streams and rivers.
This new form of pollution from disposable masks combined with the other know pollutants and the impacts from mining, industrial pollution, excessive soil erosion and increased land clearance is pushing Zimbabwe water and river systems to the limits of sustainability.
The raging fires that engulfed the infamous Pomona dump-site, sparking outrage among residents in northern and western suburbs in the city, is an example of the waste management crisis facing Harare and the country.
The open burning of mountains of garbage has irked residents who complain bitterly about this perennial crisis, which has affected them for years without a solution in sight. No attempts have been made to develop a proper waste disposal system despite the existence of the plans. Local community based organisations which are involved in efforts to clear recyclable waste are struggling to maintain these efforts due to a lack of support from both the public and corporate sectors.
They often lack the basic protections such as rubber boots and gloves and having to commit their own sparse equipment. The waste recycling sector requires a lot of incentives to clean up the environment.
The new Covid-19 waste in addition to the already existing single use pollutants are presenting a growing public health risk which requires urgent action to quantify and address the issue of disposable Covid-19 PPE products.
All this now requires commitment and a sense of urgency among all critical sectors from the household level to recycling entities, civil society organisations, government and the corporate sector.
Solutions to the problem must fit the local context and involve all stakeholders to help deal with the rising pollution levels.
It is quite possible that if effective measures are adopted and implemented, the amount of disposable products discarded every year can be significantly cut.
The promotion of mask wearing is now part of a global billion-dollar industry with the United Nations trade body, UNCTAD, estimating that global sales will total some US$166 billion this year, up from around US$800 million in 2019.Without any concrete action being taken, the medical waste, e-waste, single use diapers, plastics and other pollutants will result not only in environmental damage, but will carry a huge cost to our water purification, tourism, forestry and fisheries sector.
It could pose a huge blow to the livelihoods of millions of people.
Worse still, the potential consequences are dire – pollution could lead to public health risks from infected used masks, open burning or uncontrolled incineration of masks, leading to the release of toxins in the environment as well as transmission of diseases to humans. As a country we have detailed action plans to clean up the mess, but implementation is a nightmare.
Solutions to these problems are complex and it will require the collective effort from households, communities, civil society organisations, government departments and the industry itself.
Awareness too, needs to be created regarding the impacts of disposable masks, single use sanitary products and PPE, e-waste, kaylites, disposable nappies and a whole range of plastic waste.
Promoting safe and appropriate disposal and alternative options such as reusable products is also key.