As we learn to live with the virus and the use of masks becomes a daily affair, experts have urged citizens to move away from one-use masks to three-layered cloth masks.

A woman in New Delhi holds up a cloth mask that she stitches and distributes for freePTI
news Coronavirus Friday, July 03, 2020 - 16:02

Masks have become essential, as governments across the world are making them compulsory to stop the spread of COVID-19. When the masks rule first was imposed, many people went to their nearby chemist store and picked up the cheapest option available there — the surgical disposable masks.

However, as we learn to live with the coronavirus and the use of masks becomes a daily affair, experts have urged citizens to move away from one-use masks to three-layered cloth masks.

The most common masks that people are wearing in India are flat pleated masks of woven fabric which cover the nose and mouth and can be affixed behind the head with straps or elastic fasteners. However, most of the masks commonly found at your neighbourhood chemist or grocery store are made out of a material called non-woven polypropylene, which is not biodegradable, and can end up in landfills and stay there for years. In the middle of a pandemic, this can become very dangerous.

How effective are these masks?

Speaking to TNM, Odette Katrak, the co-founder of Beautiful Bengaluru which has a core focus on reducing waste, says that many people can be seen on the streets using blue surgical masks. 

“Most are lower income groups and what's worrying is that they are actually reusing these masks. Doctors confirm they are not supposed to be worn for more than six hours, but many say they have been wearing the same mask for days; some even since lockdown started! Some say they wash it, but once you wash the mask, the fibres on the mask do not have the same property as a filter and then the mask is rendered useless. However, a cloth mask can be washed daily and will keep you safe. So we're creating awareness to push the shift to cloth masks — we have a zero waste masks campaign underway,” says Odette.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare also recommends the use of cloth masks for common citizens who are not doctors or frontline workers. The special surgical masks are supposed to be used only by health workers and doctors, and others using them may lead to a shortage for healthcare workers, who need these masks more than common citizens do.

The environmental impact 

Disposable masks are considered sanitary waste, but thousands of such masks end up in landfills. In Bengaluru, TNM spoke to Randeep Dev, the Special Commissioner of Solid Waste Management of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), who says that used disposable masks should be wrapped in a piece of paper or a bag and discarded separately. 

“The disposable masks are coming in the dry waste and are coming to the landfills also. It is becoming an issue and so we are encouraging the public not to use them. Sanitary waste in terms of masks has gone up by an estimated 30 to 50 tonnes since the pandemic was reported,” Randeep tells TNM.

“We are a population of 1.3 crore. Just think, if the majority prefer disposable masks, what a huge amount of avoidable waste is needlessly created! Doctors confirm that cloth masks are adequate for regular preventive use,” Odette points out.

Sanitation workers at risk

Such improper disposal of disposable masks not only leads to environmental damage, it also leads to contamination and faster spread of infection. The recent development of 23 sanitation workers in Bengaluru getting infected also points to the lack of proper awareness in the disposal and sorting out of the masks.

Uma, a pourakarmika (sanitation worker) in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar, says that they have not been informed about guidelines to dispose of masks and gloves. 

"We are finding a large number of masks and gloves, especially outside hospitals. People who visit hospitals come outside and throw their masks and the plastic packets in which these come. We are packing them along with the dry waste. We have been given gloves and masks but we have been reusing them for more than a month now," Uma says.

Activist Leo Saldanha, in his representation to the BBMP, had said that to provide Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to all the pourakarmikas in Bengaluru area, the cost will not exceed Rs 75 lakhs. 

“People who handle waste have to be protected, maybe even more than you or me. I checked across 40 wards, there were no sanitisers provided to them. If you cannot protect frontline workers and you expose them to infection, they, in turn, will become vectors. We are too late and we have already turned them into vectors and they also have been infected. This is a colossal criminal failure by the BBMP,” Saldanha alleges. 

BBMP Special Commissioner Randeep Dev tells TNM that the civic body has carried out several awareness drives and initiatives to make sure citizens, as well as sanitation workers, are informed of the use and disposal of masks. 

“There are around 17,000 sanitation workers in Bengaluru and we have given all of them one pair of masks, so around 35,000 masks have already been given. We have told contractors that every month they should be supplementing the supply of masks and we are penalising contractors if this is not followed,” Randeep says.

However, now BBMP too is moving towards the use of cloth masks to protect the sanitation workers. 

“We have given cloth masks to the workers now. We have also given them hand sanitisers, they are being told proper techniques to maintain good hygiene, physical distancing is being practised and we have disabled the biometric attendance systems, so they are giving manual attendance. A health screening camp was held last month. This month also we will be holding one,” he says.

With every new situation, there are problems that evolve, and indiscriminate use of disposable masks is the newest big environmental problem worldwide and also for our city, says Odette. She adds that apart from these measures, workers and citizens should be made aware of why one needs to wear a mask.

The use of cloth masks will also support the handmade movement, Leo Saldanha says.

“Tailors have been out of jobs amid the lockdown and so if you shift away from such machine-made masks to handmade cloth masks, it will help. People can wash these and reuse because cotton on your face is much better than some synthetic material. Sweat can even end up causing secondary infections. So I think everyone, as a collective measure, should opt for cloth masks and discard the use of disposable masks," he adds.

With inputs from Prajwal Bhat

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