CHENNAI: With all of us gradually coming out of lockdown we find ourselves venturing out for more than just groceries and medicines. With this movement, there is also bound to be an increase in our usage of masks, sanitisers and single-use plastics to be safe and touch-free as far as possible. Plastic personal protective equipment (PPE) is also becoming a normal sight — whether at a local beauty salon or a doctor’s clinic people are suited up in these for safety and often change them after every appointment. With the rise again in the mentality of disposable=safe=virusfree; there is fear that the pandemic could worsen the already serious problem of plastic pollution.
In other words, the coronavirus crisis seems to be normalising the use of single-use plastics — while the whole world was engaged, just prior to the outbreak, in a war against disposables. Plastic is back with a bang with sanitisers (the bottles, nozzles, sprays are all made of plastic which is not often recycled), face masks, latex gloves, disposable wipes or even the PPE worn by your hair stylist! Realistically though, the unpredictability of the virus demands it.
You can’t blame someone for using sanitising wipes to clean their taxi seat while wearing disposable gloves and then discarding the wipes and the gloves after a single use. The issue is the safe way to dispose this waste responsibly and not litter the taxi itself or throw it on the roads for others to pick up. One-time used masks are increasingly seen strewn everywhere. Pavements, roads, our beaches, lifts in apartment buildings — I have seen masks lying about in all of these places. Experts say used masks lying around pose risk to public health.
“There is a risk to our volunteers with these masks dropped on our beaches,” says Stella of Namma Beach Namma Chennai after a recent clean-up in Panaiyur. “Improperly discarded masks, especially those that look soiled, could be a potential health hazard and we do not want to touch those even with our gloves on. We understand that these could be washed into the ocean and become a threat to marine life, but we are also concerned about our own safety — in this case, which to choose? Health or Environment?” she asks.
The only real solution is to try and choose reusable cloth masks which can be washed and re-worn as far as possible. Remember it is only safe if it is dry and if the inner layer of the cloth mask becomes moist, it must be changed. If you have no choice but to use a disposable mask, then it must be removed properly and disposed of responsibly. After carefully removing the mask, fold it in half inwards, such that the droplets from the mouth and nose are not exposed to the environment.
Then, fold the mask into another half, and then another, until the mask looks like a roll. Wrap it using the ear loops so that it will not unravel. Then this should be thrown into a proper garbage bin. While we are fighting the pandemic, we also need to be aware of our “disposable footprint”. Choose wisely and safely for yourself, your family and for the environment as we start venturing out of our homes again — remember this planet is also our home and needs to be treated respectfully.
Pavitra Sriprakash @pavisriprakash
The writer is an architect, urban designer, dancer and chief designer at Shilpa Architects