All About Green

Is hygiene Incompatible with the Environment?

Dec 2020
Author: Green Power
Pile of disposable medical masks made of plastic
Pervasive use of surgical masks led to plastic waste disaster
Photo from Pixabay

COVID-19 has brought us many unexpected consequences, including the issue of face masks. Disposable surgical masks have indeed protected the lives of millions of people, and have become among the most wanted goods worldwide in 2020. Unfortunately, their pervasive use has also led to plastic waste disaster. Must the environment be sacrificed for the sake of hygiene and safety?

Hygiene products such as face masks, menstrual products and diapers are mostly disposable, as cleaning the soiled products is rather difficult. The makeup of these products is mainly plastic and cannot be easily decomposed. Microplastic will also be released in the waste treatment process. These hygiene products, in particular the mass-produced surgical masks in recent months, have brought acute environmental problem around the world.

To reduce the use of surgical masks, some people try to “sterilize and reuse” the masks through application of ultra-violet light or steam. However, experts have advised the public not to do so, and explained that the internal structure of the mask may be damaged in such ways or sterilization may be incomplete. On the other hand, attempts have been made all around the world to recycle face masks. For example, a company in France has found a way to recycle discarded face masks by grinding them down into small pieces and carrying out sterilization before making them into other plastic products. Recycling of surgical masks is technically easier than for other hygiene products as both the constituents and decontamination are simple. But in the past, the waste volume was low so there have not been any recycling facilities worldwide set up to handle the waste. When the pandemic hit globally, we are short of a timely solution.

A diaper made of plastic
Diapers use massively worldwide
Photo from Pixabay

On the contrary, used diapers, with the dirty secretions and complicated material mix, are harder to recycle. Nonetheless, due to their massive use worldwide, there have long been research efforts into more eco-friendly products and treatment. In the U.S., for instance, there are diaper products made up of biodegradable materials which can be used for compost afterwards. In Japan, used diapers have been remade into construction materials. This year, one major diapers producer launched a recycling trial in Tokyo and plans to publicly list the production of recycled diapers two years later. There are indeed ways to minimize environmental impacts of disposable hygiene products.

In fact, technical issue is not what limits the development of hygiene products recycling. The key is to ensure the volume and quality of recycled waste and how willing the public is in embracing such recycling efforts and recycled products. At present, most companies that recycle hygiene products have to collaborate directly with hospitals and nursing homes for larger scale collection. In Hong Kong, the road to recycling hygiene products is even more remote.

For those of us who opt for more eco-friendly hygiene products, there are now cloth face masks to be used, together with disposable surgical masks, to extend the usage of the latter. There are also reusable diapers and menstrual pads and cups to replace the disposable ones. Of course, in using such products have to pay attention to proper usage and cleaning, in order to achieve hygiene and minimize environmental impacts at the same time.