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Opinion

Keep safe, wear a mask; and then what?

Doreen G. Yu - The Philippine Star

Masking started in January 2020 when Taal Volcano erupted and ash drifted far and wide, causing breathing and respiratory problems. Boxes of surgical masks purchased wholesale from Bambang in Sta. Cruz were included in the relief packs sent to evacuation centers in Batangas and Laguna. What used to cost P1.50 apiece went up to P3, then P5.

Then that minuscule critter of a coronavirus came to our shores, and masking became a matter of life and death. Surgical face masks became the most sought after and the rarest of commodities. Stocks in drugstores sold out even before they reached the shelves. Limits were set on purchases of masks – along with alcohol and toilet paper.

My sister-in-law works for a company that brought in machines from China to make surgical masks. My barkada and I pooled our orders so we could purchase wholesale; each one ordered for her immediate family, extended family, the neighbor’s family, workers at the son’s factory… At P625 to P750 per box of 50 masks (or P12.50 to P15 per piece) it was suki price – may utang na loob pa for priority delivery – considering others were selling for as much as P1,800 per box (or P36 each). The hoards were tucked away securely in cabinets – perhaps even under lock and key.

Here we are a year later, and you can get a box for as low as P50, or P1 per mask. There are now all kinds of alternatives to the boring blue disposable mask – they come beaded, embroidered, masks with company or group logos, sayings or pictures, designer masks, social enterprise masks from communities in Marawi, Tacloban, Ilocos… But the disposable mask is still most widely used, perhaps because it is so cheap.

We now even double mask; a recent study in Japan supposedly showed double masking doesn’t really offer that much added protection, but hey, better double than sorry, right?

We Filipinos are generally good about following protocols like wearing masks and shields (even if many people have the mask on the chin and the shield atop the head), although a friend rightfully pointed out as we drove to Tagaytay recently that the farther away from the metro we went, the less we saw folks wearing masks. And that brings us to the “and then what?” part – what happens to all these disposable masks after we use them?

Sadly, these masks end up all around us, carelessly thrown away. They end up in gutters, on sidewalks, in the bushes, in garbage piles by the sides of roads, in unsegregated trash in landfills and in our waters – divers are increasingly finding them in our bays and seas, among the coral in our reefs, along beaches and coastlines, in canals and rivers.

Masks – along with gloves and PPEs – are medical waste, and thus should be segregated and not simply thrown into the garbage can along with other household or office waste in the common “di nabubulok” receptacle.

We do have RA 9003 (Ecological Solid Waste Management Act) and RA 6969 (Toxic Substance and Hazardous and Nuclear Waste Control Act) but implementation falls quite short.

Hospitals have the “yellow bin” where such medical wastes are discarded for proper treatment and disposal. Households and offices should have such a receptacle too, not necessarily yellow, but one specific for such waste. At home I have a plastic bag where members of my household put their used masks, and when these accumulate I tie up the plastic bag before throwing it out.

A report by the Asian Development Bank estimated hospitals in Metro Manila generating 280 tons of medical waste per day since the start of the pandemic. According to an article in the ACS Environmental Science and Technology journal, globally up to 129 billion disposable face masks are used each month. The UN Conference on Trade and Development estimated global sales of disposable masks reached $166 billion last year.

Those are staggering numbers, and with the pandemic unfortunately staying with us for the near future – even with vaccines – masks will continue to be used – and thrown away.

We have to start being responsible about disposing of masks as we are being responsible about using them. Unfortunately, “there is no safe way to dispose of single-use face masks,” according to Amanda Keetley, founder of Less Plastic, in an article in the Independent.

So let us heed the experts who are more and more recommending the use of cloth or washable/reusable face masks, and leaving the surgical masks to health workers. Make your mask a statement for your health and well-being, as well as the health and well-being of our family, our community, our nation and our world.

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