Mask mess: DEH sees increase in discarded face coverings

The content originally appeared on: Cayman Compass

Since the re-introduction of mask mandates in September, there has been a notable rise in the number of disposable face coverings being indiscriminately dumped, the Department of Environmental Health has confirmed.

If you take a casual drive along most road ways or a walk along popular footpaths, chances are you’ll encounter a discarded mask and it is becoming a growing concern, as local COVID cases mount.

Discarded masks like these are increasingly common around Cayman and the DEH is appealing to the public to be more responsible. -Photo: Alvaro Serey

“The DEH is not indifferent to the unquestionable and visible increase of the numbers of masks and face coverings been dumped on the roadside and in public spaces since the return of the mask mandate. It is each person’s responsibility to make sure that the waste they generate is disposed of correctly, this especially applies to face masks and coverings,” the DEH said, following queries from the Cayman Compass.

Worldwide problem

According to an OceanAsia report last December, an estimated 1.56 billion face masks are estimated to have found their way into oceans in 2020.

The Hong-Kong-based marine conservation organisation said the significant amount of waste “will result in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic pollution”.

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In its report, entitled ‘Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution’ OceanAsia said masks will take as long as 450 years to break down, “slowly turning into micro plastics while negatively impacting marine wildlife and ecosystems”.

The report used a global production estimate of 52 billion masks being manufactured in 2020, a conservative loss rate of 3%, and the average weight of 3 to 4 grams for a single-use polypropylene surgical face mask to arrive at the estimate.

Now two years into the pandemic, that figure could be even more devastating.

In Cayman, Michael Haworth, DEH Assistant Director Solid Waste, called on members of the public to do their part to ensure the Islands’ environment is protected.

Michael Haworth, DEH Assistant Director Solid Waste

“Each one of us plays a critical role in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our community by ensuring our own safety and managing your waste properly. For persons dropping this litter, they are exposing others including DEH staff to risk, needlessly taking up government resources and leaving an eyesore in our environment,” he said.

At present, under the Cayman Islands Litter Law, offenders can be fined up to $500 or face imprisonment for six months for littering in a public place.

Important to protect each other

Previously there had been discussion on amending the Litter Law to increase fines and even introduce a specific offence for the discarding of medical waste such as the masks, but no further movement on that has been articulated to the public.

In countries, like France and some US states, increased fines for the dumping of masks have been implemented.

Meanwhile, the DEH also reiterated that the health and safety of its staff is its number one priority.

“DEH team members at the Solid Waste section are provided with PPE and hand tools to ensure their safety, even for the managing of normal garbage and litter collections. They are also provided with ongoing briefing and training sessions to promote best safety practices and procedure,” it said.

Masks pose a serious threat not just environmentally, but also health-wise as they could be a possible source of COVID-19 infection.

Mask mandates were reintroduced in last September following local transmission COVID-19 cases. -Photo: Alvaro Serey

Another issue on the horizon, when it comes to treating medical waste, is the widespread use of lateral flow tests.

A study posted on the Science Direct platform entitled “COVID-19 pandemic and healthcare solid waste management strategy – A mini-review”, found that test kits and waste generated from different diagnostic methods for COVID-19 “are another additional type of healthcare waste that has been generated in substantial amounts during the COVID-19 outbreak, as global transmission and prevalence have necessitated the detection of infections to aid with appropriate social distancing and quarantine measures”.

It warned that, if not properly handled, the waste could increase the spread of the virus.

“The use of rapid test kits for identifying an infected person produces additional waste in the waste stream, as each kit is used only once. There is always a chance that this waste could be contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 and contribute to further spread if not managed properly,” the report added.

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