by Dusky Rachelwritten during Recovery Movement Control Order 2020
Disposable face masks are made of plastics and polypropene, another type of plastic that pollutes our Earth
As government restrictions began to gradually lighten, I’d leave my house for an hour or two for my ‘weekly fresh air’; some time away from being cooped up in my tiny apartment. Nowadays, I find myself people-watching more often than ever. Perhaps I had missed seeing people walking on the streets, chatting in kopitiams– a sight we took for granted before all the Covid-19 madness.
Funnily enough, the thing I’d notice most about people is their type of face masks. Now being a multi-billion dollar industry, face masks come in all colours, patterns and tying methods. Disposable face masks and reusable cloth face masks could be seen plastered across people’s faces. Young, old, rich or poor, we have all adapted seamlessly to our government’s requirement for face masks almost overnight.
Malaysian wearing face masks outside of Pavillion Kuala Lumpur
Source: Firdaus Latif
One day while I was having lunch at a kopitiam, I invited my sister to see if people wore more disposable face masks or reusable cloth face masks. After 20 minutes of eyeing every customer who walked in, the challenge ended. We laid our calculations down. It turned out that the ratio of people who wore disposable masks instead of reusable masks were 2:10.
This got me wondering- when there is such an array of affordable yet fashionable reusable face masks on the market, why are people still opting for disposable masks?
Don’t get me wrong, I am more than happy to see people taking necessary precautions for public health. However, the aftermath of face masks disposal has got me deeply concerned for our environment and conservation issues. It may not be obvious, but an environmental disaster is looming upon us.
You might have rejoiced while reading various articles in April to May, during the peak of the pandemic, where the nitrogen dioxide in Mumbai cleared up by 15%, or how endangered leatherback turtles are returning to the shores of Phuket. While every cloud has a silver lining, it is never a bad idea to be prepared for worse environmental crises to come.
Despite being lectured about the importance of wearing face masks and social distancing, our Director General of Health, Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah, had never really made clear about the proper methods of PPE disposal. Disposable face masks are made of plastics and polypropene, another type of plastic that pollutes our Earth.
Health DG Dr. Noor Hisham at the Covid-19 Press Conference
Source: Twitter @DGHisham
Marine life such as fish and turtles could often mistake latex gloves and face masks for jellyfish. If they do not suffocate first, their ingestion of these materials could cause malnourishment- a slow and painful death for marine life. I’ve also seen articles about birds’ feet caught in face masks straps. While I was hiking one day, I saw a sight that made my blood boil- a Macaque was playing with a disposable face mask! How I wish I could snatch it away.
When not discarded into proper waste bins, face masks could lie on Earth’s surface for hundreds of years before breaking down into microplastics. It may seem harmless, but there is a detrimental effect on human health as well. The tiny plastic particles could also be mistaken for food by fish. Over time, this pollutant could accumulate in the food chain. With humans being the tertiary consumer in the food chain, ‘pan-seared salmon with a dash of microplastics’ could be our dinner entree in the future.
Source: Jo Leen Yap
The elastic straps on the face-covering had become increasingly tight around the gull’s legs
So what should we do? If you still must wear disposable face masks, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) suggested ‘snipping the straps’ of disposable face masks to prevent animals from being tangled in them. As for the sustainable option, reusable cloth face masks are the way to go! You could make a huge difference to our environment while empowering local businesses that produce reusable face masks. Several Malaysian brands empower marginalized individuals to make a sustainable living by manufacturing face masks. You could help B40 women, refugees, or different-able individuals put food on the table. In the long run, an investment in a high-quality reusable mask could go easy on your pockets as well.
Visit Turtle Conservation Society, Gibbon Conservation Society and many other conservation groups for more merchandise.
At the end of the day, it is not plastic that is going to save us from the pandemic. It is the mindset of our people. In other words, people do not view climate change the same way they view a life-threatening disease. I have high hopes for our government to address Covid-19 waste issues with the same urgency as finding a vaccine. If world leaders could set aside differences and take a common stance on battling Covid-19, I don’t see why they couldn’t do the same for our planet.