Rwanda: Experts Call for Sensitisation On Safe Disposal of Face Masks

Medical face masks (file photo).
12 January 2022

Face masks are essential for controlling the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and they have become an everyday accessory.

However, there is a risk that comes with the use of single-use face masks and PPE shields -- they put the gains made in environmental conservation in jeopardy-- particularly if they are not carefully disposed of.

Abias Maniragaba, a Lecturer at the University of Lay Adventists of Kigali, says that face masks should be sorted from other waste because they are considered to be hazardous.

As the country has put in place strict measures to deal with coronavirus, face mask-wearing is mandatory to wade off the virus, which has so far killed 1,384 people in the country.

Therefore, a huge chunk of face masks is not disposed of properly, potentially posing human health and environmental threats.

"Some people treat face mask waste like any other garbage," Maniragaba said.

To him, homes should have a specific bag for face masks instead of mixing them with other waste.

"Garbage collectors must also carry them separately from other waste," he added, calling for a nationwide campaign to sensitise people on waste sorting.

According to the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) guidelines, solid waste must be sorted, collected and transported to appropriate destinations in accordance with the law NO 48/2018 of 13/08/2018 on Environment.

REMA also states used face masks must be isolated from other wastes--in households and offices.

"It's prohibited to dispose of anywhere, burn or mix with other municipal solid waste the used face masks," reads part of the guidelines.

The document adds that the waste should be disposed of in a dry place exclusively used for the face masks disposal within people's homes, workspaces or at any other essential service provider's space and that they should be within a 4-meter distance from people's activities or sleeping area.

According to Paulin Buregeya, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Compagnie pour l'Environnement et Développement au Rwanda (COPED) Ltd, they are currently carrying out sensitisation on how to sort and dispose of used face masks, adding that they provide them with materials like bags and a sorting guiding document to ease their work.

"When we collect used face masks, we separate them from other wastes. We do not recycle them; we dispose of them as waste. Masks are among wastes that are too dangerous like medical waste because we suspect people who have used them to have respiratory diseases or viruses," he said.

He says it is safer to mix face mask waste with other medical waste.

"If they can put them in their own sacks, that will be very good because we are looking forward to working with pharmacies where people can freely bring them and we can collect them," he said.

Among the guidelines for disposal of face masks, the place where the face masks were disposed of must not be used again before being disinfected with appropriate sanitary products.

In addition, the waste must not be within children's reach and must be conserved well until it is transported to the sellers of those face masks, at any healthcare centre or pharmacy.

"All authorised face mask sellers, health care facilities must put in place separate facilities to temporarily store used face masks from the population," the document further reads.

Zoubeda Faida, an environmental activist and co-founder of Save Environment Initiative (SEI), a non-governmental organisation, says public awareness is still needed.

"When people understand why they should separate the used face masks from other waste, they will help in conserving the environment while preventing pollution," she said.

She disclosed that some of the reasons why waste should be sorted is for people to know which kind of waste can be reused or recycled and make them easily available for companies that need them as resources.

She said that it also prevents pollution, adding that if people keep throwing masks anywhere, they can contaminate the environment including other people and transmit viruses like Covid-19.

"There are a few people who sort out waste because they have understood its importance. We count that as a great contribution to the environment and ecosystem conservation. Those people are the ones that sort used face masks from other waste," she said.

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