As the Covid19 pandemic continues, masks have become a must for everyone. Only a few months ago, masks were worn depending on the level of fine dust in the air, the health condition of individuals, and for specific health care purposes. However, in the Covid-19 era, masks have now become the last defense shield to protect us from viruses that spread through smear.
Wearing a mask properly reduces the risk of infection significantly. But a red light came on in an unexpected place. Masks, disposable gloves, and various packaging waste were piled up, causing a major waste disposal crisis. According to the results of domestic waste disposal of the Ministry of Environment’s resource circulation information system in Korea, the amount of standard waste generated among household waste in the country was 4.25 million tons from January to August 2020, up 7.4 percent from the same period last year. In terms of landfill, incineration, and rehabilitation, landfill increased by 7%, incineration increased by 6.7%, and recycling increased by 15.5%. Some uninhabited islands in Hong Kong are called mask islands because of piles of discarded masks. Masks dumped without permission at nearby medical sites were found to have been piled up on the island.
Most of the disposable masks on the market are made up of filters to prevent pollutants, nose clips and earring bands to hold the nose balance. Except for the wire used in nose clips, most of the masks are made of chemicals. If masks are buried, they remain intact. During incineration, polypropylene produces dioxin, a highly toxic chemical. Once dioxin is leaked to the environment, it maintains its properties without decomposing for decades, so there is a potential that substances that have been dissolved in soil and rivers will be absorbed into our bodies through plants and animals. If this substance is absorbed into the human body, it has a fatal effect on health such as birth of malformed babies, cancer, metabolism and hormonal abnormalities. It is a very dangerous substance that can threaten not only humans but also ecosystems.
What a dilemma – disposable masks that protected us from contaminated air and viruses return to pollutants that pollute the air and attack us.
As long as Covid19 lasts, people should always use masks. It is difficult to recycle because of the risk of infection. To solve this problem, scientists are looking for realistic ways. A British company has succeeded in developing face shields that do not use plastic. It has secured transparency while using wood pulp for parts that cover its face. The University of British Columbia in Canada is developing biodegradable masks that are decomposed into water or carbon dioxide by microorganisms in wood fibers. In Japan, a company is making masks using starch extracted from plants.
Experts advise that it is necessary to build a structure for the entire society, including the use of subsidies, to solve the problem. Efforts in this field of science are important, but most importantly, social awareness and the overall effort of society would be imperative.