Like last year, World Environment Day 2021 is also being celebrated in the shadows of Covid-19. The June 5 date is to encourage global awareness and action to protect our environment. According to the United Nations, more than 50 per cent of the total wetlands have been destroyed over the last century, and 90 percent of coral reefs could be lost by 2050 even if we manage to keep the increase in global warming to 1.5°C.
Pollution is one of the biggest menaces to our environment. The emergence of the pandemic brought another type of pollution with it – mask pollution.
As sales of facemasks exploded after Covid-19, the production of disposable masks saw extraordinary growth. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated that global sales totalled $166 billion in 2020 compared to just $800 million in 2019.
Many of the used masks, along with other medical waste, end up in landfills or seas. The uncontrolled dumping could result in public health risks from infected used masks, and open burning of such wastage will also lead to release of toxins in the environment, the UN Environment Programme said.
Moreover, the open burning of pandemic waste could lead to secondary transmission of diseases that can further impact humans and the environment.
Not just environmental damage, the mask pollution will also hurt tourism and fishery sectors. UNEP last year said the financial cost in these areas could be $40 billion. Therefore, the UN agency is urging governments to include treatment of pandemic waste as “essential public service”.
UNCTAD’s director of international trade Pamela Coke Hamilton said plastic pollution was already a great threat even before the pandemic, but the sudden boom in daily use products, such as masks, to keep people safe is making things worse.
As disposable masks are polluting an already stressed planet, there is a need to promote non-toxic, biodegradable or recyclable alternatives, and effective management of pandemic wastage.