PETALING JAYA: Used face masks should be treated as hazardous waste and not dealt with like normal refuse. Standard operating procedures (SOP) should also be introduced to deal with their disposal.

In calling for such measures, environmentalists said discarded used masks could increase the risk of Covid-19 infection.

Circular economy and waste management expert Dr S. Sri Umeswara said face masks are to protect the wearer from getting exposed to the virus but they could end up putting others at risk of infection.

He said frontliners, especially healthcare workers, treat face masks as hazardous or medical waste. But used masks are being discarded as solid waste, he pointed out.

Malaysian Nature Society president Prof Dr Ahmad Ismail said the public generally do not dispose used masks in the right manner.

“You have to discard your mask in a plastic bag and throw them in a closed bin. But that seems like a tall order for (some people),” he said.

He suggested extra bins be provided at public areas specially for the disposal of used face masks. But even then, the right attitude is needed for this to be effective, he added.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) advised people to avoid touching their masks while wearing them as well as discarding it immediately in a closed bin. However, these used items are frequently seen strewn on the ground.

“I have asked a few people to walk a 100m or just a block from the building that they were at. They found at least one face mask on the ground,“ Ahmad Ismail said.

Umeswara said his neighbours in Klang had conducted a “gotong-royong” to clear indiscriminately thrown masks, adding that there is no official SOP for the public to deal with them responsibly.

“The Health Ministry needs to constantly remind the public the significant need to dispose face masks properly, on top of the regular advice on hand-washing, sanitising and social distancing,“ he said.

Umeswara also called for an “extended producer responsibility” system to be implemented so that manufacturers of protective equipment bear the responsibility of recovering and disposal of the items.

On Aug 3, Kuala Lumpur Gemilang Community Welfare Club chairman Na’im Brundage said the mandatory use of face mask has the potential to increase 62,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste, 31,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 27,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste within a year.

He suggested the use of recyclable cloth face masks instead of single-use ones that he said should be reserved for frontliners.

EcoKnights president Yasmin Rashid said it is a delicate balance between protecting the environmental and saving lives.

“It will drastically reduce pollution if we use reusable masks,” she said.

“But we need to ensure a good supply of affordable and effective reusable masks. People also find it more convenient to wear disposable rather than cloth masks.”

Read this story on our iPaper: Public urged to discard used face masks properly to avoid creating secondary risks