How masks became one of the most common and dangerous types of garbage
To wear a mask or not to wear is perhaps the most frequent question of the entire coronavirus pandemic. In it, many are guided by the prescriptions of the WHO, but the organization itself has changed its own recommendations. In March, experts ordered masks to be worn only by those infected and those who care for them, but already in early June, they recommended the use of PPE to all those who leave their homes and are in places with "difficult physical distance - for example, in public transport or a store."
One way or another, in Russia, as in many other countries, it is still mandatory to wear a mask. The most inexpensive and widespread of them are three-layer medical masks made of special non-woven spunbond material, the service life of which is limited to two to three hours. After that, people simply throw them into the nearest trash can, without even thinking about provoking the further development of the epidemic, primarily among workers in the field of waste disposal. According to the former head of Rospotrebnadzor Gennady Onishchenko, coronavirus can stay on the outside of medical masks for seven days, and on the inside for four.
Improper disposal of PPE is also detrimental to the environment. According to Greenpeace's estimates in Russia, in Moscow alone, about 9 tons of waste is generated from masks every day. The clearest evidence of the problem comes from Opération Mer Propre, a French non-profit organization that regularly cleans up litter on the French Riviera. At the end of May, divers discovered the so-called COVID-19 waste: these are not only masks, but also gloves and sanitizer bottles. The catch has raised concerns about a new type of pollution that will emerge when millions of people around the world begin to dump protective equipment. “We risk seeing more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean soon,” said Opération Mer Propre spokesman Joffrey Peletier.
OceansAsia, based in Hong Kong, expressed similar concerns at the beginning of the year: experts discovered deposits of disposable masks off the coast of the uninhabited Soko Islands. “It's just another type of marine debris like plastic straws, glasses and bags. It is neither better nor worse - just another legacy of ours to future generations,”explained Gary Stokes of OceansAsia, suggesting that masks are blown away by the wind from landfills and ships.
It is not only the number of discarded masks that causes concern, but also the time during which they will harm the environment. Polypropylene, which is part of the same spunbond, decomposes for up to 500 years - in fact, it is an ecological time bomb.
How to properly dispose of disposable masks
Melita Vujnovich, WHO Representative in Russia, Rospotrebnadzor and Greenpeace give similar instructions for disposing of disposable masks:
- Before removing the mask from your face, wash or disinfect your hands thoroughly;
- remove the mask by the ear loops, grabbing them from behind;
- cut the mask into several pieces (this will help prevent further resale);
- put the mask in a separate, hermetically sealed bag;
- leave the mask for three days (during this time, the virus on surfaces may die);
- discard the mask along with household waste;
- do the same with disposable gloves.
Rospotrebnadzor - on the use of disposable and reusable masks © rospotrebnadzor.ru
Why disposing of disposable masks is not environmentally friendly now
These actions are safe from the point of view of preventing the development of an epidemic, but not from an environmental point of view. According to a representative of RT-Invest, which owns the largest waste management operator in the Moscow region, PPE is not recyclable. If the masks get into the container after household use, they will either end up at the landfill or will be placed on the non-recyclable waste storage card at KPO, a waste processing complex. Such waste will remain intact until the commissioning of energy utilization plants, which are planned to be launched in the Moscow region in 2022.
Greenpeace sent an appeal to the head of Rospotrebnadzor Anna Popova, in which he insisted that masks and gloves should be classified as class B medical waste, which means that they must be collected separately from solid municipal waste and disposed of appropriately - for example, by grinding, pressing or burning in specially designated places.
The organization asked to allocate separate containers for collecting PPE and place them in public places - "at public transport stops, at metro stations and within walking distance on the streets of settlements of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation, in which the mandatory wearing of masks and gloves has been introduced" (such containers have already begun arrange, for example, in the Irkutsk region). Also, the appeal spells out the need to transport discarded masks and gloves "to the places of their disposal or disposal, which have the necessary permits to work with class B medical waste."
At the time of this writing, the appeal had collected 28,915 signatures out of 50,000 required for its consideration by Rospotrebnadzor.
How to properly disinfect a reusable mask
Under current conditions, the safest for the environment is the use of reusable cloth masks - albeit not as lightweight, convenient, inexpensive and effective as disposable ones. Today they can be found in pharmacies or souvenir shops, as well as made yourself - for example, from gauze folded in several layers.
A reusable mask should also be worn for no more than three hours - until it becomes wet. WHO recommends washing it by hand with soap or detergent in hot water (at least 60 degrees) at least once a day. After that, the mask must be processed using a steam generator or an iron with a steam function, and then ironed with the iron already turned off so that there is no moisture on the surface. Store and carry a reusable mask in a hermetically sealed bag.