Commentary: That new problem of disposable masks ending up as trash on pavements and beaches

Commentary: That new problem of disposable masks ending up as trash on pavements and beaches

While many people sport reusable ones, disposable masks are a mainstay. Unfortunately, many of these end up as trash but this suggests a deeper problem of values, says Zero Waste SG’s Pek Hai Lin.

Conservationists are finding face masks washing up on Hong Kong's shores in increased
Conservationists are finding face masks washing up on Hong Kong's shores in increased quantities. (Photo: AFP)

SINGAPORE: Mask-wearing has become an integral part of our ensemble when we head out. It will likely be a mainstay for months, possibly years, to come.

By now, millions of masks, both reusable and disposable, have been distributed by the Singapore Government and sold by businesses.

On the flip side, this ubiquitous item has also become an unfortunate feature alongside other commonly littered items in public spaces.

We are free to choose the type of masks we want to wear according to our comfort levels and lifestyle considerations. However, we should be personally responsible for the way they are disposed.

This applies specifically to disposable ones, which, like other single-use items such as plastic bags, bottles and other packaging items, have been spotted casually disposed of along pavements and overflowing bins.

People in reusable face masks in Singapore (2)
A child wearing a reusable mask at Raffles Place. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

Social enterprise Seastainable founder Samantha Thian has been picking up disposable masks littered along East Coast park. Judging from the condition of the littered masks during her regular beach clean-ups, she tells me many of these are not washed up from elsewhere and the chief culprits are likely beach visitors in Singapore.

Masks are very much like used tissues – they are personal items that are excellent conduits for the transfer of pathogens. They should therefore be disposed of carefully so that they do not become a vector for the spread of germs and viruses.

Where a Lancet report has found the novel coronavirus can stay on a surgical mask for up to seven days, this risk should not be treated lightly.

Even if they are not deliberately littered, users should try their best not to place them in a position where they might be blown off by the wind and rain. If one’s mask has fallen to the ground, it should be picked up and disposed of responsibly.

Last month, The Guardian reported on this so-called “COVID-19 waste” citing conservationists reporting a surge in ocean pollution as the pandemic rages across the world. They now find disposable masks and latex gloves together with plastic cups and bottles being washed up onshore.

READ: Anti-virus face masks plague Hong Kong's beaches

READ: Risk of COVID-19 plastic trash pile-up worries Europe

Hong Kong-based conservation organisation Oceansasia.org reported the sight of mask trash among ocean debris as early as March this year. With 7 million people in Hong Kong wearing a mask every single day, the potential for pollution was “substantial”, it said.

This is a global problem brought on by a unique event. But Singapore’s relationship with waste goes much further – it brings to mind the broader topic of how we see public hygiene and waste management.

THINKING DIFFERENTLY ABOUT WASTE MANAGEMENT

Mask littering cannot be viewed as an issue in silo, but as part of a wider lack of environmental ownership in Singapore.

Member of Parliament-elect Carrie Tan shared on social media on Sunday (Aug 2) that 40 per cent of emails she receives each day are related to municipal cleanliness and littering.

Addressing littering is not as straightforward as engaging cleaning attendants to “sweep” the problem away, but also understanding where it stems from. Ms Tan mentioned in the same post that cleanliness-related problems “consumes much time and energy of several government agencies” every day.

A cleaner clear dishes as people dine at a hawker center in Singapore as the city state reopens the
A cleaner clear dishes as people dine at a hawker center in Singapore as the city state reopens the economy amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, June 19, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Perhaps it might be time to do things differently in Singapore.  Instead of hiring more cleaners and putting in place more dustbins, should it be done the other way, where we have fewer cleaners and dustbins?

In an interview some years ago, then chairman of Public Hygiene Council Liak Teng Lit said Singapore’s approach to cleanliness started because of a fear of communicable diseases spreading. But today, the “disease” is about society’s values towards public hygiene.

He used the examples of schools in Taiwan which have no cleaners, and students sweep, wipe their tables and clean dishes every day. Japan is another country worthy of emulating. There are hardly any dustbins in Japan, but one rarely sees litter in public spaces.

READ: Commentary: Wear your mask properly! Uncovering the reasons behind public mask shaming

READ: Commentary: Recycle or reduce waste? Why Southeast Asia’s ocean plastic pile has no easy answers

On the other hand, having an army of approximately 70,000 cleaners for a population of 5.6 million people in Singapore means always being able to push the problem to someone else, and keeping the space we live in clean has become someone else’s responsibility.

This is a stark difference in ratio of cleaners in Taipei, with only 5,000 for a population of about 2.6 million people. According to Taipei Times, littering is not commonly seen as managing one’s trash is “considered a civic responsibility”.

READ: Commentary: The enormous growth of plastic packaging as take-outs and food deliveries surge must stop

LISTEN: Repairing and recycling to reduce e-waste: A pipe dream in Singapore?

SELF AND SOCIETAL EMPOWERMENT ARE KEY

The Public Hygiene Council had plans for a CleanSG Day, where cleaners in 15 town councils would be given a break “to get residents to take responsibility for the cleanliness of their estates.

This is progress but it can definitely be done more frequently, or even for longer periods of time to foster stronger ownership for our communities. In the absence of cleaners, if residents are actively encouraged to take part in cleaning efforts around the estate, besides appreciating the work that cleaners do, it can cultivate a stronger sense of belonging towards our shared living spaces.

In this way, everyone is invested in keeping their own living spaces clean, especially if there isn’t a ready army waiting to pick up after us. Eventually, we may make do with fewer cleaners for similar cleanliness standards.

When we handle our own waste, we may better appreciate the hard work that goes into waste management. If we become more aware about the types and amount of waste we generate, and want to spend less time managing it, the best solution will be to reduce whatever we use in the first place.

Mask trash at beach
Disposable masks found at East Coast beach in Aug 2020. (Photo: Samantha Thian)

In South Korea for instance, a volume-based food waste disposal system has been in place since 2013. Residents pay for dedicated garbage bags and pay according to how much food waste they dispose of.

When there is direct accountability towards the amount of waste thrown, users may be more prudent in how much they consume in the first place. 

Additionally, when barriers are created to regulate the convenience of “out of sight, out of mind” disposal, communities and companies will likely come up with creative ways to minimise waste creation.

South Korea has since managed to recycle 95 per cent of food waste compared to 2 per cent in 1995, showing success is possible.

Much has been said about the benefits of a circular economy but the transformation doesn’t have to be ground breaking and revolutionary. It can begin with shifting mindsets. Besides public education, explicit waste management education, starting from cleaning up after oneself to waste sorting, could be learnt and practised in schools and at home.

It will take collective action to boost our levels of public hygiene and better manage waste. But it can start small, with us reminding each other to dispose of masks much more responsibly.

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Pek Hai Lin is the Executive Director of Zero Waste SG, a charity non-governmental organisation driving zero waste action in Singapore through education and advocacy.

Source: CNA/cr

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