Back in early 2020, when the world slowly goes into lockdown to contain the spread of the Covid-19, there have been significant changes that can be seen during the lockdowns. The famous canals in Venice that run through the city are running clear for the first time in years. Dolphin sightings have increased along the Bosphorus straits, Turkey, where sea traffic and fishing have halted in Istanbul as the city of 16 million remained under lockdown in April 2020. Rare otters like the Asian Small Clawed Otter have also made a comeback across lakes in Malaysia.

However, as the pandemic is slowly fading, many countries have opened their local tourisms to boost the economy. This poses an impending danger to the environment as people are still required to wear masks in public places. The aftereffect of this is having masks strewn all over the street, which will eventually find its way to nature.

Prior to the pandemic, there was a surge of intervention in plastic usage. Business premises, local authorities and NGOs have launched many campaigns to reduce the use of disposable plastic products. Eateries have ditched plastic food containers and straw while retailers are now charging fees for shopping bags. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the United Nations Environment Programme has used the term “Plastic Pollution Pandemic” to describe plastic and microplastic pollutions. In more ways than one, the pandemic has made plastic products more apparent as the great protectors and polluters.

The environment is already littered with everyday items such as water bottles, food packaging, shopping bags and bubble wraps from online shopping. Coupled with personal protective equipment, including aprons, gloves, and disposable face masks, this is a new breed of post-consumer waste.

According to NST, Alliance for Safe Community (Ikatan) chairman Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye said an estimated 10 million masks are used and discarded in Malaysia daily. On a separate occasion, the BBC reported that French non-profit Opération Mer Propre had raised the alarm of a surge in ocean pollution after finding disposable masks floating like jellyfish and waterlogged latex gloves scattered across seabed.

Divers had found dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitiser beneath the Mediterranean waves, mixed in with the usual litter of disposable cups and aluminium cans. “Soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean,” Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre said.

So how to combat this pollution? The search to find sustainable solutions is on. However, there are still many questions that we have to brace before we can successfully implement them. One of the options can be switching to biodegradable masks. Organic, biodegradable masks are being advocated as solutions to ordinary masks. At Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT), masks made out of waste plant material has been developed. The original aim was to create biodegradable, anti-pollution masks. Now the idea has been pitched so that it could be used for Covid-19 protection.

One other thing that we can do is recycling our used masks. In the UK and France, these countries have taken the effort to collect and recycle PPE, face masks and disposable gloves. These items will be sorted into categories based on materials characteristics and composition and, if necessary, blended with other plastics to manufacture new products.

All the above aside, it all boils down to our attitude in this whole part of reducing pollution. Once you are done with the mask, throw it into the rubbish bins when you are at home or into a designated area in public instead of simply chucking it away as you pleased.  Few would want to touch what has shielded a potentially virus-loaded breath. We have managed to produce vaccines in such a short amount of time to combat Covid-19. In protecting the environment, it seems that we still have a long battle ahead of us.