Millions of discarded face masks piling up in public areas could end up further polluting the world’s oceans and sewage networks, environmentalists have warned.
As more people worldwide don personal protective equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic, many have resorted to dumping it on streets, parks and beaches.
Environmental groups said these cast-offs could potentially escalate the global pollution plight and set back the fight against reducing plastic waste. Many of the disposable masks currently sold in pharmacies and shops contain materials that are not biodegradable, including plastics like polypropylene.
And just like any single-use plastic, the excess litter could pose a “huge threat to marine life and wildlife habitats”.
“In the quest to fight Covid-19, the problem of plastic pollution has just intensified,” said Habiba Al Marashi, chairperson of Emirates Environmental Group, a non-governmental entity focused on sustainability.
“When the world pledged to ban single-use plastics, the coronavirus outbreak turned the situation around.
“The use of face masks and gloves is not the only threat here, more people are using single-use plastic bags in grocery stores and shopping malls due to the fear of cross-contamination too.”
While rubber gloves and masks are part of the line of defence against infection in the UAE, she said failure to dispose of them correctly could end up “clogging sidewalk drains and washing into waterways”.
This could put additional stress on the environment and add to the "growing burden of marine debris".
“These disposable protective items are lightweight and can be carried away by wind or washed off by the rain very easily,” said Ms Al Marashi.
“Discarded masks and gloves will not only pollute the land and be a threat to our wildlife, it will also fill up our water bodies and put aquatic life at risk."
As per World Health Organisation guidelines, disposable masks should be discarded immediately after use in a closed bin.
Globally, plastics have consistently been listed among the top 10 items collected in ocean clean up drives around the world.
Scientists estimate that about eight million metric tonnes of plastic - the equivalent of 90 aircraft carriers - ends up in the ocean every year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US agency that focuses on marine conditions.
As a result of the pandemic, the manufacture and sales of face masks has soared over past few months, magnifying the potential for more plastic waste.
Many frontline healthcare workers in the UAE now don the protective gear around the clock to treat patients. And residents are also required to wear them at all times when outside the home.
In late March, Lulu, which has 75 supermarket and hypermarket branches in the UAE, announced it was sourcing 1.6 million face masks on an average, daily.
And since government precautionary measures were introduced in the Emirates, Fine Hygienic Holding, a manufacturer of hygiene products, has supplied over 300,000 masks to the UAE market.
"We produce and sell between 6,000 and 8,000 per day," James Lafferty, chief executive told The National.
“Our masks are reusable and environmentally friendly. Despite the urge to produce disposable masks and make a profit, we have resisted on principle.
“When we are in a post-corona world, which is indeed coming, we want our planet to be healthy, not choked with billions of non-biodegradable masks and gloves in our landfills and oceans.”
Dr Sreejith Balasubramanian, senior lecturer at Middlesex University Dubai, said most face masks on the market are "single-use and non-biodegradable".
“These discards can remain for years, and most of them caught by wind updrafts can end up in the desert or washed down drains, which eventually end up in the ocean and waterways,” he said.
“We need more dedicated waste bins for capturing discarded face masks and plastic gloves.
“When people see these bright looking bins popping up like the way hand sanitiser stations popped up during initial days, they will be more inclined to dispose of it safely.”
Dr Balasubramanian is currently undertaking research on cities that managed to flatten the curve. He said the evidence so far suggests these states took “considerable measures” to tackle the impact of discarded PPE items.
Some of these steps included encouraging the use of “paper masks or cloth masks made of cotton”, which can be reused, as well as awareness drives to educate people of the environmental impact of such littering.
In London, UK, which boasts a population of about nine million, masks and gloves have been found “on streets, shopping neighbourhoods and residential areas and parks”.
“It’s not just an issue of littering, which is clearly not acceptable at the best of times, we are also in a public health crisis,” a spokesman from the London Waste and Recycling Board said.
“Discarded face masks and plastic gloves are potentially infected with Covid-19 and need to be collected and disposed of by street cleaning crews across the city.
“Many of these crews are struggling with staff shortages due to illness or self-isolation so litter is accumulating and many are being forced to pick up other people’s discarded items, placing themselves at risk.”
The LWRB has highlighted the problem on their social media channels and has pleaded with the public to put these items in the bin, not on the ground.
Dumped plastic waste can "entangle wildlife or be mistaken for food", said Natalie Banks, a marine conservationist in Abu Dhabi.
Filter-feeding animals, like whale sharks and humpback whales, could ingest floating masks and gloves by accident.
“This tends to happen when these items start to disintegrate and break up into smaller pieces, it can potentially kill these animals,” said Ms Banks, who works for Azraq, a non-profit marine conservation organisation.
"If a human happens to eat the animal which has digested the disposable glove or mask components, then they too are introducing this toxic material into their bodies.
"These materials attract pollutants, toxins and chemicals linked to reproduction, developmental, behavioural, neurologic, endocrine and immunologic issues in humans."
In Dubai, all PPE items are transported and treated at the Jebel Ali Hazardous Waste Treatment Facility.
Abdulmajeed Saifaie, director of waste management department at Dubai Municipality, said the city “anticipated the waste materials that would be generated” because of the pandemic.
“In March we issued an advisory to all our waste management partners to provide the appropriate containers and bins for these items,” he said.
“Since the issuance of the advisory, residents and businesses in Dubai have cooperated by following the set provisions, therefore no improper disposal has been observed by the municipality.”
Last month, Abu Dhabi Police said motorists would be slapped with a Dh1,000 fine and six black points if caught dumping used face masks and gloves on the road.