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Disposable face masks aggravate Hong Kong’s ‘already very serious’ waste problem, says local environmentalist


As Hong Kong nears the one-year mark for mandatory face masks in public areas, the city’s already overstretched landfills are coping with more than 3 billion disposable masks, said Don Cheng, from local charity Greeners Action.


“This is a very heavy burden on our environment, our landfills and on the whole waste management system,” Mr. Cheng said in a phone interview.


Between 10 tonnes and 15 tonnes of masks are sent to Hong Kong landfills every day, Secretary for the Environment, Wong Kam-sing, said in a press release in May last year. 


Mr. Cheng said that the waste problem in Hong Kong was already serious before the pandemic. “We dispose of over 11,000 tonnes of solid waste every day, and 21% of it is plastic,” he said.


Most single-use face masks are made of plastics such as polypropylene, which is recommended for preventing the spread of COVID-19 but may also contain cancer-causing toxins.


“These masks also contain other kinds of materials and metals. It is quite difficult to separate them,” said Mr. Cheng, adding that this makes them unsuitable for recycling.


“Quite a number of these face masks litter our natural environment, for example on hiking trails, at the beach and in the ocean,” he said. 


Disposable face masks may take as long as 450 years to break down, according to Hong-Kong-based marine conservation organization OceansAsia.


Discarded masks are hazards for wild animals with environmental groups around the world reporting animals injured or killed after being caught in the straps.


Most Hongkongers use seven to 10 single-use masks a week, according to a survey last year by Greeners Action. That’s 4 million to 6 million face masks a day, said Mr. Wong.


Toni Lo, a local primary school teacher, said she goes through 14 face masks a week, generally two per day.


“I usually use single-use Level 3 medical face masks, because it’s the type of mask suggested by the government for the prevention of transmission of Covid-19,” she said. “I wouldn’t switch to using reusable face masks because I am not sure if they meet the standards for providing protection against viruses and water droplets.”


Mr. Cheng suggests using reusable masks in certain circumstances. “For example, if you are just sitting at the office and doing paperwork, using your computer or having a walk at a park near your home, it is very safe to wear a suitable reusable mask,” said Mr. Cheng.


Ines Farçis,15, said she typically uses the same reusable face mask every day and single-use face masks only in risky situations. 


“I use reusable masks because I don’t want to harm the planet. And the paper masks get wet very quickly when I sweat, which makes it stick to my face, so it’s really uncomfortable,” she said. “I use disposable face masks or reusable face masks with a filter when I’m going to a less safe area.”


Chan Kwong Shing, a 38-year-old designer, said he uses seven surgical masks a week. Mr. Shing said this type of face mask is “convenient”, adding that he “may use reusable ones, but it depends on the way to wash it”. 


An estimated 129 billion face masks are used globally every month, equivalent to 3 million every minute, according to a recent study. 


《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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