Don’t dump your face masks just yet – if you must, think of hospitals and construction sites – Business Insider South Africa

  • Face masks have littered streets, piled up in landfill sites, and entangled birds since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Now, it’s no longer mandatory for South Africans to cover their faces.
  • That leaves many individuals and businesses with stockpiles of excess face masks.
  • Face masks aren’t easy to recycle, and those that are binned should, at the very least, have their straps cut off.
  • Unused surgical masks can also be donated to hospitals, and construction workers could do with face coverings to protect from dust inhalation on site.
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It’s no longer mandatory to wear a face mask in South Africa’s enclosed public spaces. But before you dump the pandemic-era coverings in the bin, consider donations to health facilities and construction workers, says the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA).

South Africa recently scrapped its last remaining Covid-19 regulations, including the requirement for face masks to be worn in public indoor spaces and on public transport. With the wearing of face masks now optional, as opposed to mandatory, many individuals and, more so, businesses, are sitting on stockpiles of face coverings.

Face masks, especially the single-use, disposable kind, are littering the planet in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, with much of the world imposing mandates to limit the spread of Covid-19, some 130 billion disposable masks were being used each month.

These disposable masks, most made of non-woven plastic fabric that does not biodegrade, are the newest form of pollution that environmentalists are worried about.

“Although we don’t have exact figures for South Africa, as a nation, we are rather careless about single-use plastics, and masks are no exception,” said Brendon Jewaskiewitz, president of the IWMSA, back in November.

“These masks are not biodegradable. When they are exposed to the elements, like sunlight, they break down and fragment into micro- and nanoplastics. It is then spread into our ecosystems and consumed by animals and fish.”

And while disposable masks litter streets and pile up in landfill sites, their straps entangling small animals, fabric face masks can at least be upcycled or re-used. The latter may come into play if mandates resurface or if overseas travel requires a face covering, so it’s best not to dump cloth coverings, said Jewaskiewitz.

“With the apparent need for face masks having fallen away, the IWMSA would caution individuals and organisations with excess stocks of masks to not simply bin them, as this could exacerbate the negative environmental impact that discarded masks have already had over the last few years,” Jewaskiewitz told Business Insider SA.

“Whilst it may be advisable to hold onto the now redundant masks for the time being, as they may be needed again in the near future, consideration should be given to repurposing clean masks, if need be, for instance, as fabric fillers for various applications.”

Before disposing of face masks, users are urged to at least snip off the ear bands or straps to prevent birds and other small animals from getting entangled.

And although face masks may no longer be mandatory, there are still facilities and workplaces which make use of coverings and could benefit from donations of unused excess stock.

“Surgical masks could also be donated to health facilities which have an ongoing need for them. The construction industry also has an ongoing need for dust masks in their daily activities,” said Jewaskiewitz.

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