Wearing a face mask to keep out the coronavirus has become an essential part of everyday life for many people
around the world, but the huge amount of waste being created as the single-use items are tossed aside has the
potential to become an ecological disaster.
How to deal with discarded face masks, which number in their millions or even billions, is another headache for
Chinese authorities already caught between containing the viral disease and limiting the economic damage caused by it.
The country’s inadequate medical waste treatment capabilities have also been put under the spotlight, environmental experts said.
Environment and health authorities say masks and other protective gear, especially items used by medical personnel and
people infected with the coronavirus, should be treated as clinical waste, and sterilised before being incinerated at high
temperatures at dedicated facilities.
While it is difficult to get an exact figure on the number of discarded masks, it is reported that the volume of medical
waste in Wuhan, the city in which the epidemic began in December, had quadrupled to more than 200 tonnes a day last
week, according to mainland Chinese media reports.
The total amount of medical waste gathered across Hubei province on February 24 totalled 365 tonnes, of which 60 per
cent came from hospitals, the report said.
By comparison, Wuhan produced 17,000 tonnes of medical waste in the whole of 2018, according to the country’s top
Eric Liu, a toxic waste specialist at Greenpeace’s Beijing office, said China had a huge shortage of waste disposal facilities,
specifically those capable of handling clinical waste.
“The waste treatment capacity in China, especially in terms of medical and hazardous waste, is barely enough to cope
with everyday needs, let alone the country’s biggest public health crisis in decades,” he said.
While the environment ministry said most medical waste was being properly dealt with in major cities, just 31 per cent
of the country’s 629,000 tonnes of medical waste were treated in 2015, up from 24 per cent in 2008, Xinhua reported
last year, citing an industry study.
Du Huanzheng, director of the Recycling Economy Institute at Tongji University in Shanghai, also expressed concerns
over the widening supply-demand gap in medical waste treatment, but said a large number of new facilities were being built or planned.
“The disposal of medical waste is a major part of the battle against the outbreak, which is a wake-up call for the government
to speed up the construction of new facilities and research into waste treatment technologies,” he said.
The coronavirus outbreak could be the catalyst for expanding the medical waste sector and lead to the building
of more incineration facilities, the experts said.
They said combustion remained the preferred means for disposing of medical waste in China, although industrialised
countries were phasing out incinerators due to health and environmental concerns.
Masks could be split into three categories, Liu said. While clinical waste must be disposed of at dedicated incineration
facilities, masks used by healthy people could be tackled in a similar way as household waste, which was burnt in industrial furnaces, he said.
The real challenge came from those used by people who were placed under home quarantine or others with mild symptoms, he said.
“There is a grey area over this kind of used mask, which are not under the jurisdiction of medical institutions but should
be treated in accordance with standards for medical waste.”
In Wuhan, authorities are scrambling to find solutions to the challenge. The environment ministry said the city’s five incinerators
for household waste disposal and various industrial furnaces at cement and other factories had also been assigned to help clear
the garbage backlog, which stood at about 190 tonnes as of February 24.
According to a report by China Economic Daily, Wuhan is rushing to build more medical waste treatment plants near hospitals,
including ones near Huoshenshan, Leishenshan and Jinyintan hospitals that will treat nine, 15 and four tonnes of clinical garbage respectively on a daily basis.
A total of 17 temporary storage facilities for medical waste, with a combined capacity of more than 1,000 tonnes, have also been built.
While authorities had to transfer some of the garbage produced in Wuhan to neighbouring cities for incineration, they have also
tried to enlist help from waste treatment companies around the country.
China Shipping Group and a company in Anhui deployed a number of mobile medical waste incineration cabins to Wuhan last month, Xinhua reported.
The incinerators, each of which is capable of processing five tonnes of waste a day, were first used in 2003 during the Sars outbreak.