In Hong Kong, people are littering discarded coronavirus masks in large volumes, according to Reuters. The masks have cluttered beaches and nature trails. This waste, according to environmental groups, is a threat to marine life and wildlife habitats.
So far, there isn’t any evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted from humans to other animals, but this doesn’t make throwing used masks or any other trash on the ground a good idea — especially if that trash was used to protect oneself from an infection that is currently racing around the world at alarming speeds.
7.4 million people live in Hong Kong and have been, for weeks now, using single-use face masks daily. Many of these masks are now being dumped into the sea or the countryside. In the sea, marine life can mistake them for food. Oceans Asia founder Gary Stokes referred Reuters to Hong Kong’s Soko Islands, which are isolated and uninhabited. There he found 70 discarded masks on a 100 meter stretch of beach. A week later when he returned, he found more than 30 new ones. Other beaches echo the same story.
“Nobody wants to go to the forest and find masks littered everywhere or used masks on the beaches. It is unhygienic and dangerous,” Laurence McCook, head of Oceans Conservation at the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong, told Reuters. Groups like his have been taking on the challenge of beach clean-ups to remove the trash. These masks aren’t the only things that people throw in the oceans, beaches, and nature.
The single-use face masks are made from polypropylene, which is a type of plastic that doesn’t break down quickly, according to Plastic Free Seas founder Tracey Read. “People think they are protecting themselves but it’s not just about protecting yourselves, you need to protect everybody and by not throwing away the masks properly, it’s very selfish.”
I was stunned at the idea of littering with these masks. The first thought in my mind was that if you are truly trying to be sanitary and deal properly with this pandemic, you wouldn’t dispose of used medical items such as masks or gloves into the ocean. It’s just common sense.
Those littering must either be lazy, not know how to properly dispose of masks, or not realize the gravity of what they are doing. They see their masks as common as the paper wrapping their straws (which people in my area often throw on the ground). I don’t condone the latter, but the former is a whole other level of litter.
As the coronavirus becomes more prevalent, hopefully officials will also realize what’s at stake when it comes to disposing of medical equipment such as face masks, bandages, and gloves. It would be silly for the governor to have to actually tell people, “throw away your infected items properly,” but it appears that such an important matter is not common sense.