Why masks are the new plastics menace

The new headache comes four years after Kenya banned single use plastics

In Summary

•Carrier bags with handles, with or without gussets, or flat bags without handles and with or without gussets are not allowed in the Kenyan market

•70 per cent of single use face masks are non-biodegradable.

Single use disposable masks. Image:Courtesy.
Single use disposable masks. Image:Courtesy.

Experts have warned that single use disposable masks poses huge risk to the environment because they contain plastics.

Hamburg University of Technology director of the research Kerstin Kuchta told Deutsche Welle January 5 that 70 per cent of single use face masks are non-biodegradable.

"The elastic ear loops are completely plastics. The clip over the nose is also plastic," she said.

This means that single use masks are emerging as new source of microplastic fibers.

This means they can break down into small pieces of particles under 5 mm known as microplastics.

The microplastics get into water ways, adding to the vast plastic and plastic particle waste in the environment.

Kuchta's concerns is corroborated by other studies that have been carried out.

A study titled 'Covid-19 face masks: A potential source of microplastic fibers in the environment', corroborates her views.

The study, which was published in US National Library of Medicine June 16, 2020, was supported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"This new emergence of face masks as environmental litter both in the terrestrial and aquatic environment is a piece of evidence that the global pandemic has not in any way reduced the challenge of increasing plastic pollution in the environment," part of the study warns.

"Disposable face masks (single use) that get to the environment (disposal in landfill, dumpsites, freshwater, oceans or littering at public spaces) could be emerging new source of microplastic fibers, as they can degrade/fragment or break down into smaller size/pieces of particles under 5 mm known as microplastics under environmental conditions."

Following the outbreak of the pandemic in the country March last year, the National Environment Management Authority developed guidelines for the management of waste.

According to Nema guidelines, it is inappropriate to mix contaminated masks/gloves with household waste.

However, some households are still mixing them due to the fact that municipal waste or garbage segregation is non -existent.

Environment ministry has however drafted new National Sustainable Waste Management Bill, 2018, that aims at cutting down waste by 95 per cent. 

Under the new policy, which is at the National Assembly, waste will be segregated at source before service providers move them to materials recovery facilities where sorting, selling and treatment are done.

Five per cent of the waste will be incinerated, 30 per cent recycled, while 60 per cent will be turned into manure. Only five per cent will go to landfills. 

The move will create jobs along the waste management chain. 

Currently, waste generated goes directly to the dumpsite, a move created massive dumpsite across the country. 

"The mixture of contaminated waste and recyclable waste may cause a potential danger to waste collectors when they scavenge the waste bins to collect recyclable items. In worse case scenario, if someone just throws a used mask on the street, someone might pick it up, or worse try to collect them to sell as second-hand," Nema says in the guidelines.

The authority says that for safety of others and themselves, the public have to take care of their used masks.

It says disinfecting them will help ensure the used masks do not become a second source of the coronavirus infection.

The guidelines emphasise the need to compel the public to ensure the used masks, and gloves are treated as contaminated items and must be disposed as infectious waste.

Nema says special bins shall be set up in communities as centralised disposal points for the used masks and shall be supervised by the public health officers or their agents.

"In gated community, apartments, residential areas, factories, institutions, office blocks, the management or the owner of such facilities will provide medical waste pedal bins that will have biohazard bin liners," it says.

The authority says the management/owners will engage a licensed hazardous waste handler to collect and transport the infectious waste for a final disposal in accordance with Waste Management) Regulations of 2006.

Nema says in the rural and small urban centres at the ward level, the county governments shall provide the same waste bins that will be placed either at the chiefs camps, ward offices, or health clinics and any other appropriate designated places that will be communicated to the public.

"Collection of such hazardous waste from such designated places shall be done through a licensed infectious waste handler," Nema says.

In public places including markets, bus/ matatu terminals, the county government shall provide to the general public Covid-19 related medical waste pedal receptacles that will have biohazard bin liners installed strategically in the public places and well secured and labelled infectious waste.

Each County government will engage a NEMA Licensed infectious /biomedical waste handler as required by EMC (Waste Management) Regulations of 2006.