Environmental pollution is feared to leap beyond control in the coming days as the government recently made it mandatory for everyone to wear face masks outside home without putting in place a system for their disposal.
Studies suggest that face masks often contain plastics and other types of polymers alongside different materials.
Authorities are relying on traditional waste management — landfill dumping or burning — for managing face mask and hand glove wastes and other personal protective and hygiene products whose use has dramatically increased because of COVID-19.
Once mainly used by healthcare providers, the products now found their way into every household, and in absence of a mechanism to collect them separately, they are getting mixed with everyday household waste.
With monsoon around the corner, the wastes, a large portion of which are single-use plastics, is feared to get washed down to water bodies, clogging water drainages system on the way and further deteriorating the cities’ waterlogging problem, experts fear.
‘We are creating a big environmental problem if we fail to properly collect and dispose the wastes we are generating to protect our health,’ said Md Abul Hashem, a former Chemistry professor at Jahangirnagar University.
He advised the Environment and Social Development Organisation, a non-government environment campaigner, which recently revealed that Bangladesh generated 14,165 tonnes of single-use plastic waste between March 26 and April 25, roughly the first month of COVID-19 infection in the country.
‘The wastes would have to be collected separately and disposed carefully because they are hazardous to both the environment and health,’ said Hashem.
The period the ESDO study represented was at the onset of a health crisis when public awareness about it was very low and the government itself was undecided whether or not to disclose the full magnitude of the crisis.
Still the study found over half of Bangladesh’s 160 million people were already wearing single use synthetic surgical face masks, 30 per cent were using hand gloves, and 30 per cent used hand sanitisers.
The hand gloves are marketed as vinyl or polythene or latex gloves while the sanitisers are marketed in single use plastic bottles.
In the period studied, people used 455 million surgical masks, 1,216 million polythene hand gloves, 189 million surgical hand gloves, 49 million hand sanitisers and 1,449 million polythene bags, according to the study.
Polythene bags were in use in Bangladesh even before the pandemic hit but its use increased manifold as the disease struck and people started to rely more on home deliveries of essentials and other commodities.
‘We have already created huge quantities of waste and much of it is not recyclable,’ said ESDO executive director Siddika Sultana.
‘We need to find a way to manage them in a safe manner,’ she said.
Siddika said that the waste generation was likely to increase manifold in the coming days following the May 30 government health advisory that everybody must wear mask outside home and follow other precautions.
The health services directorate refused to share any estimate of wastes generated as personal protective equipment worn by physicians and other healthcare givers.
‘We can only say that there is enough PPE needed to take care of the COVID-19 patients,’ said health services additional director general Nasima Sultana before hanging up on the correspondent.
Capital Dhaka generated the major portion of the waste in the first month of the COVID-19 outbreak amassing 3,076 tonnes, including 447 tonnes of synthetic surgical masks.
Waste management officials in two Dhaka city corporations admitted to their inabilities to properly dispose the plastic wastes.
Nearly 10,000 people collect over 5 tonnes unsorted household wastes in the city corporations, often without wearing any protective gears.
Medical wastes usually end up with regular wastes in the landfills. Only a portion of medical waste is collected by private contractors to be disposed in the city’s only incinerator at Matuail.
‘We are making our waste collectors aware so that they segregate plastics while collecting wastes,’ said Dhaka South City Corporation chief waste management officer air commodore Badrul Amin.
Dhaka University chemistry professor Abdus Salam said that plastics used in Bangladesh are non-biodegradable and very little of it gets recycled.
Once released in the environment, plastics get fragmented and some of it become micro-plastics finding ways into air, water and earth, he said.
‘Plastics could stay in the environment for a century or more and they are already in our food chain,’ said Salam.
There are signs of the impending crisis on a global scale. Researchers recently found masks and gloves in the Mediterranean seabed.
The threat on environment from increased plastic use has increased globally as the COVID-19 pandemic still unfolds and the world marked the World Environment Day on Friday with the call to celebrate biodiversity and protect it.
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