A worker wearing a protective face mask picks up items as shoppers queue to buy groceries at a supermarket amid new cases of coronavirus, in Manila, Philippines, March 11, 2020. (Photo: Agencies)
Finance manager Shiela Briol began stocking up on face masks, disposable wipes and bottles of isopropyl alcohol in late January, spooked by news of the Philippines' first case of the novel coronavirus.
"I hoarded," said Briol, who works for a non-profit group in Manila. "Although I have not gone through even half of my stash, I use my alcohol more often. I sanitize my hands every hour."
In the Philippines and across Southeast Asia, rising numbers of COVID-19 cases have pushed people to hoard masks and sanitizers, leaving most drugstores with empty shelves. Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have a total of more than 1,000 cases.
Meanwhile, the huge concern over personal hygiene, while understandable during a public health crisis, has had an unintended consequence: mountains of trash. Environmental experts said the spike in the use of disposables will aggravate the region's waste management problem.
"Any time more products or material are used, particularly plastic, it will have an impact on the local waste systems, most of which do not have the capacities to recycle well," said Douglas Woodring, founder and managing director of Ocean Recovery Alliance, a conservation group in Hong Kong.
Making matters worse is the "fear of contamination", which may push people to just dump them anywhere.
"The clear plastic packing on masks technically could be recycled," Woodring said. But someone has to collect them, and at volume, to make it worthwhile. It is not likely that many are able to do this as most are used in the house, and it is not easy to recover them from the waste stream."
Headed for waterways
Danny Marks, assistant professor of environmental studies at City University of Hong Kong, said that only 9 percent of the world's plastic is recycled. As such, most of the bottles and masks cannot be reused and will end up polluting the environment.
Marks said discarded masks are also bound to end up in Southeast Asia's waterways.
"The careless disposal of masks has littered footpaths, roads and waterways. When it rains, these masks will make their way into our seas, where marine life could mistake the masks for food. The masks could then block these animals' digestive tracts and kill them."
As a long-time public health advocate, Ramon San Pascual has been campaigning for reducing the use of plastic and other disposables in hospitals across Southeast Asia.
But the executive director for Southeast Asia of the global network Health Care Without Harm says that while plastic products such as syringes and IV lines are essential in healthcare, there is still room for reusable alternatives.
For San Pascual, implementing the three R's of waste management-reduce, reuse, recycle－is more urgent now as Southeast Asia grapples with the outbreak.
"A lot of things that will be used in the hospital like surgical masks and testing kits (for the coronavirus) are made of plastic, and they can't be recycled," he said.
However, San Pascual said it is important to audit a hospital's use of plastic products and other disposables to determine if they are being used efficiently.
He also proposed waste segregation－separating infected items from non-infected ones and later identifying what can be recycled.