How masks and other coronavirus waste polluting the planet

Amidst the 3 months lockdown in India, when a stopper was put to all the industries and institutions in both public and private sectors, a sulking GDP growth as low as 3.1% in quarter 4 of the financial year 2020 was observed.

During the inevitable economic crisis, the one industry that has flourished despite the stringent laws of lockdown is the sanitation and public healthcare industry of the country.

This growth has been seen due to the increased public demand for PPE kits including masks and gloves, drugs, and sanitary items. The global market for such products as well has observed significant growth.

coronavirus waste polluting the planet
Image credits: Merch HÜSEY / Unsplash

The current statistics suggest a sharp increase in the production of corona related products.

India, which didn’t even make a single corona protective gear kit earlier, is now producing over 4.5 lakh PPE suits daily, making it the second-largest manufacturer in the world”, tweeted Union Minister Smriti Irani.

As per a report, of the 2.22 crore PPE kits that the center has ordered,1.43 crore has been made by domestic manufacturers. Furthermore, India manufactures more than 4 lakh surgical masks whose market is expected to reach to about $95 million by 2025.

Consequent Environmental Hazards

While the pandemic has turned out opportune for the growth of healthcare industries, such a sudden and unmanageable boost is expected to bring environmental hazards with itself.

The excessive production of single-use PPE kits including surgical masks and gloves, and syringes, etc. has become essential for the world despite its inescapable hazards.

The Guardian has reported removal of the ban on single-use plastic in the European Union to import large quantities of surgical masks and gloves. The report also described that the inadequacy in the disposal of these has resulted in the presence of more masks than the jellyfish population in the Mediterranian sea.

Increase in dumping of plastic waste in India

In India as well, the increased use of plastic in sanitizer bottles, PPE kits, etc. has resulted in an increase in the dumping of plastic waste in the already overwhelming landfills.

Though the volume of plastic and biomedical waste has increased substantially during the outbreak, no measures have been taken to regulate their safe disposal.

As per reports, an increase of 585% of COVID related wastes has been tracked in Gurugram between the lockdown months of April and June. Similar increases have been expected in the other major COVID affected cities.

The exponential increase in the biomedical waste without proper management has increased the disease outreach amongst sanitation workers and ragpickers.

In the national capital itself, till 23 June over 40, sanitation workers were tested positive of the disease of which 15 lost their lives. Additionally, the risks of land, air, and water pollution are increasing unnoticeably due to inadequate management of these precarious wastes silenced in the ruckus created by the disease outbreak.

Not only do these items pollute their surroundings tremendously, but they can also become potent carriers of the disease for the people coming across. Likewise, their non-biodegradability and choking capacity can cause a lethal impact on the species living both on land and in water. 

 What can be the possible solutions?

We shan’t combat a crisis by calling for another one, right? So why not shift to alternatives that help us shield ourselves from the virus and simultaneously make minimal impacts on the environment? Hence, we need to be more aware of the material used for manufacturing our PPEs.

We must realize that masks do not protect people from infections by others, they just stop an infected person from spreading droplets in open. Therefore, if not a frontline worker, one should rather prefer a well fitted reusable cloth mask instead of single-use surgical/respirator masks. These masks if washed properly are durable and do not have severe impacts on the environment.

Similarly, gloves are essential only for those who either have to deal with COVID-19 patients or have to come across a large number of unknown people. The common public while obeying social distancing doesn’t need to wear them. Since latex gloves are necessary for surgical purposes and very few eco-friendly alternatives are available against them, we should focus on minimizing their use by the common public.

We as responsible citizens should engage in designing DIY PPEs such as self-made masks and gloves with reusable alternatives like polyester, cotton, and linen. We should remain cautious for our safety but getting triggered to use hazardous items excessively is not a responsible approach.

(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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