Medical masks are magnifying Hong Kong's ongoing pollution crisis

When Covid-19 was first reported in mid-January, Hongkongers swiftly took action. Having experienced SARS in 2003, many knew the drill: wear a mask, keep your distance and wash your hands regularly.

Combined with school closures, work from home mandates and travel restrictions, the community’s quick response has kept the local infection rate relatively low with roughly 4,600 local cases by late August.

However, a reliance on single-use face masks during the pandemic may be creating yet another crisis. Across Hong Kong, light blue surgical masks are piling up in street gutters, cluttering hiking trails, overflowing from bins and washing up on beaches. 

Typically made from polypropylene, a fossil fuel-derived plastic, single-use masks take hundreds of years to break down. They also shed tiny microplastics into waterways, harming marine life. 

While it’s clear mask pollution is a problem, it’s too soon to quantify the consequences of mask waste, says Dana Winograd, the director of environmental NGO Plastic Free Seas.

“Masks are only increasing the amount of waste going to our already almost full landfills,” says Winograd, adding that masks have also been polluting our waters. “When suspended in the ocean or lying on the seabed, they can be mistaken for food and eaten by our sea animals. And when they wash up on the beach, they can be ingested by land animals and birds.” 

Missed targets 

In 2013, the Hong Kong government set a waste reduction target: By 2022, each person would throw away no more than 0.8kg of waste per day. And with just two more years to go, we’re nowhere near the mark. 

The situation is worse than ever. In 2018, Hong Kong sent an average of 1.53kg per person to landfills each day, a 20 per cent increase since 2013.

While the government has not published any data on  municipal solid waste (MSW) rates per capita since the Covid-19 pandemic started in January, Winograd says that masks appearing  in terrestrial and marine environments in “large numbers” are the “first link in the chain of consequences.”

“[Masks] are littering our terrestrial environment, and they will never fully biodegrade. They will remain littered in the environment forever,” says Winograd. 

These stray masks and plastic linings can be particularly dangerous for Hong Kong’s marine and terrestrial wildlife, such as the native Chinese white dolphin, elusive pangolin or green turtle – all considered endangered species.  

“When animals ingest any type of waste, there is the potential for blockages and damage. The animal may also feel full, which may lead to eventual starvation,” Winograd says. “Evidence shows how harmful balloons and other items with string can be on sea animals as well as birds when they find their way into the environment. The impact of the mask straps would be similar.”

In addition to masks, Winograd says there has been an increase in discarded plastic gloves, hand-sanitiser bottles, wipes, packaging and plastic face guards. What’s more, the ongoing dining ban after 6 p.m. has also led to an uptick in plastic takeaway containers. 

In early May, the Hong Kong government attempted to offer a solution with its CuMask+ initiative, having distributed a reusable face mask to every Hong Kong resident who registered. 

However, they didn’t catch on. Nearly 10 months into the pandemic, disposable masks remain the style of choice. According to Winograd, “convenience” is most likely the major factor. 

“It is far easier to pull a new single-use mask out of a box every day than to worry about washing and drying your reusable masks,” she says. “Even though it would be more cost-effective to use a reusable mask not everyone has access to a washing machine and may not have three or four reusable masks to rotate throughout the week.”

That’s just one part of the issue. “Some people may be incorrectly concerned that reusable masks are not safe enough, particularly the people who opt for the more protective masks, such as N95 [one of the safest commercial masks available],” says Winograd.

New eco-friendly solutions 

At least one Hong Kong startup is hoping to change Hongkongers’ habits.

After noticing the increase in disposable mask use in February, Hong Kong resident Rachel Briggs set up Re-mask to provide “sustainable and eco-friendly” alternatives.

Briggs, who has a background in finance, was inspired to develop these masks after seeing something similar when she visited Vietnam for work in March.  

“I thought it was such a good idea,” she says. “I was wearing at least two disposable masks a day in Hong Kong, so I bought a few [reusable masks] to test them out.”

Back in Hong Kong, she began to research medical guidelines as well as the essential components of an effective mask, then started developing cotton versions.  

“As long as you have three filters, they work well,” says Briggs, who designed the masks herself. She then hired a tailoring business in Vietnam to bring the designs to life. 

“I started with 50 pieces to see how I’d get on,” she says. Briggs has since sold more than 500 masks, adding new styles and colours to her designs as the brand evolves. “It’s great to see that there is a demand for sustainable and cost-effective solutions.”

Winograd, agrees, recommending a few other eco-friendly ideas.

For example, she says you can use a bar of soap instead of liquid soap, which typically comes in plastic containers, to wash your hands. You can also wash your hands more frequently, rather than wearing plastic gloves. If you choose to use hand sanitiser, she recommends purchasing a large bottle, which you can then decant into smaller reusable bottles to carry in your bag. 

“Although we do not recommend the use of single-use masks other than for specific health situations if you need to use them, please buy ones that are not individually wrapped,” says Winograd. “You can use a reusable bag or any form of reusable packaging to keep it safe when not wearing it.” 

Several stores across Hong Kong sell reusable masks, including G.O.D in Central, Ekologic in Happy Valley and Live Zero in Sai Ying Pun. In addition, you could try making your own face covering by following an online tutorial like this one by YouTuber, Lauren Riihimaki (aka LaurDIY).

“Please consider whether you really need to buy another piece of plastic,” says Winograd. “It’s not possible to reverse the effects [of mask pollution that’s already occurred],” she says. “But it is possible to switch to reusable alternatives whenever possible.”