CHENNAI/TIRUCHY/MADURAI: At a time when we are fighting a losing battle against plastic pollution, the novel coronavirus has brought a new twist to the tale. While the three-month lockdown did lower air and water pollution to considerable extent, the rise in usage of disposable masks and gloves has become a serious threat. One, these items are neither recyclable nor biodegradable. Two, improper disposal can cause another spike in disease outbreak.
Chennai has 201 notified containment zones and over 8,000 active cases. Though there is no data on disposal of medical waste, sanitary workers tell us tales of sights they see. “It’s very common finding used masks lying on roadsides, near or around dustbins,” says P Kumar, a sanitary worker attached with Zone-8. “Some houses handover these items in yellow carrybags, and they go straight to the incerinators. But most of them, do not bother to segregate.”
Kumar tested positive in May. He recently returned to work. His entire family, including his nine-month-old granddaughter had tested positive subsequently.“They are worried I will get infected again. If the public behave responsibly, we are largely safe doing what we do.” The corporation estimates that the city produces 6-8 tonnes of bio-medical waste every day. This includes waste from containment zones and quarantined houses.
Pollution control board officials say they are constantly monitoring the waste generated at Covid hot spots. Ten days back, the city corporation signed a pact with two treatment facilities. Hereon, workers of the treatment facilities will directly collect waste from containment zones and hot spots in GPS-enabled vehicles, and dispose them scientifically.
A waste handling facility claims it receives around 300 kg of Covid waste daily from Tiruchy and surrounding districts currently. This is exclusive of the 1,400 kg of other bio-medical waste generated on a daily basis. It received 8,000 kg of Covid waste in May, and 3,200 kg in April. “Despite repeated instructions, appeals, and warnings, many people continue to discard masks in public posing a threat for others,” says a sanitary supervisor with the Madurai Corporation. “In many places, bins meant for collection of used masks come back empty.”
High impact on marine life
Joe K Kizhakudan, officer-in-charge at the Kovalam Field Laboratory of the Central Marine Research Institute (CMFRI) acknowledged these discarded masks and gloves can be a major environmental hazard, if proper measures are not taken. “We are finding them near the bar mouth, although not in large numbers currently. However, once the monsoon rains start, they can easily get washed down the drains ending up in the ocean and waterways. Plastic wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems. As plastic swirls around in the water, much of it breaks down to tiny pieces called microplastics and consumed by fish species,” he said.
These materials also pose threat to stray cattle, known to ingest plastics. G Arun Prasanna, founder, People for Cattle of India, said cow is a ruminant. “Cow eats almost everything. It is certain that they will pick these pharma waste. What if any of these masks contains coronavirus and the animal ends up in a slaughterhouse.”
A sustainable option
A typical surgical mask has a three-ply structure: a waterproof front and back layer, and a sub-micron pore-sized non-woven fabric middle layer. They limit water droplets from the sick making contact with the wearer, as well as droplets from those infected from escaping.
However, the reusable “makeshift” cloth masks that are “touted as reusable and eco-friendly” aren’t meant for such purpose. Experts say they may not have the required well-defined pore sizes and porosity of surgical masks.However, ESI Hospital Dean A Nirmala says N95 masks are only for healthcare workers who treat the COVID-19 patients at the wards.
Apart from the surgical or three-ply masks, the public can use reusable cloth masks too, she said, adding they need to wash it every 8 hours.Nirmala added, “Using masks is mandatory. As far as cloth masks are concerned, it is also effective. We need to wash it daily.” Frontline workers, on the other hand, have no option but to use plastic items.
Filling the demand gap between the plastic and cotton products are brands producing “Hypashield protection mask”. Gaurav Dublish and Siddharth Sood, co-founders, Wildcraft India, told Express that masks are going to become a part of one’s lifestyle. “We are in the middle of a health and economic crisis and the next one would be an environmental crisis, considering if all of us consume disposable masks everyday and throw it out then this would become a huge burden on the environment and already there are red flags going up about all the garbage collection and increasing impact of the virus. In such a scenario a mask such as this with 95% filtration levels which is reusable for up to 30 days would straightaway reduce the impact on the environment drastically.”
“While doctors don’t have an option, others can definitely help the environment by using reusable cloth masks. Even frontline workers after duty can wear reusable masks,” said Dr Aleem, Neurologist. Safe disposal is also of paramount importance, say activists. “Government must create awareness amongst people about safe disposal. Corporation should ask people to segregate their masks, gloves etc and dispose them separately. They can be placed in a separate bag and disposed once a week,” said KC Neelamegham, an environmentalist. While the PPE kits cannot be reused, wherever masks can be reused, they should be.
(With inputs from Coimbatore, Erode, and Salem)