With face masks now mandatory in many indoor areas during the COVID-19 crisis, the careless dumping of these disposable items has become the latest pollution threat across the globe, environmentalists say.
Here in Cayman, local streets and drains are becoming dumping grounds for potential virus-carrying masks and gloves.
“We want people to understand the importance of discarding the gloves [correctly] because obviously if they’re contaminated, we don’t want our staff to catch it. They have to help us, so we can help them by protecting each other,” Department of Environmental Health Director Richard Simms told the Cayman Compass this week.
Simms said while his team has not reported widespread indiscriminate dumping, he has received reports from members of the public about masks being thrown at the sides of roads and in their neighbourhoods.
“If you decide to throw your masks and your gloves in the public space; first, it is littering and we want to discourage that,” he said.
In addition, he warned that people do not want to be caught littering because “we will certainly… prosecute them… for those types of actions”.
Last month, regulations were amended to make the wearing of masks mandatory in indoor public places where social distancing could not be ensured.
More action needed
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.
For Plastic Free Cayman’s Claire Hughes, enough action is not being taken to enforce that law, saying it’s now at the point where people are discarding their medical waste without fear of retribution.
“I did a run from Fairbanks around Walkers Road as a loop and just on that three-and-a-half-mile stretch, I photographed at least 22 items of medical waste… gloves and masks, which is horrific. I think people are throwing them out of car windows and it’s unforgivable,” Hughes said.
In France, the issue of medical waste has become such a challenge that, according to news agency AFP, the French government has doubled the fine for discarding masks.
An article on the World Economic Forum website pointed out that “Coronavirus waste has become a new form of pollution as single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) floods our ocean. COVID-19 has had a number of unexpected impacts on the environment, curtailing recycling and increasing the use of plastic around the world.”
According to a report by the London-based Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, “If every person in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, that would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste and create 10 times more climate change impact than using reusable masks.”
The Hub, which is a multi-disciplinary team of researchers, scientists and engineers, pointed to the challenges of single-use masks, saying that is a growing threat to the environment.
Here in Cayman, Hughes said policy-makers should ensure that enforcement of the litter laws is carried out and an education campaign launched to get buy-in from the community.
“It’s a health risk,” she said, “not only from a contamination point of view, but … who did they expect is going to pick it up? We’ve not been able to promote our clean-ups because of the health and safety aspects of it. People have been going and doing their own clean-ups, but yes, the medical waste is an issue. People have been advised in the press briefings to not do this, but it’s still happening.”
At a 5 June press briefing, Health Minister Dwayne Seymour made a public appeal for people to stop dumping masks.
He pointed to the dangers that action posed to the public and DEH personnel.
“We are still dealing with the problem of people littering and illegally dumping waste materials in areas of our communities. Sadly, this includes masks, gloves and other types of PPE. Please do not put our community and our DEH staff at risk with this type of irresponsible behaviour,” he said.
Simms said while wearing masks is important to help protect the community from the spread of the virus, so too is the need to properly dispose of all kinds of personal protective equipment.
“We have to bear in mind that we all have responsibilities to take care of each other, especially during these times. We have responsibilities to protect you. We can’t allow room for people to go out there and discard things out in public so that others can be affected. We have to think carefully about our actions so that we don’t affect or infect others,” he said.
The DEH is advising the public to place medical waste in separate bags from regular trash, double bag that waste, and tie off the bags. These can then be disposed of with the regular trash.
“We’ll collect them as regular waste and take them to our incinerator and dispose [of them] like that,” Simms said, adding that DEH staff use PPE when conducting their duties.
Hughes said the time has come for a national clean-up, one that could also be used to assist in providing employment for displaced Caymanians.
“We definitely need better ways of disposing our waste… better enforcement, stronger littering laws, more signage up, as well. There should be signs to remind people not to litter, to take it home with them, whether it’s at the beach or whether it’s littering in the streets. As far as a message to DEH, we desperately need a national clean-up scheme,” she said.