By Brian Mukalazi

Brian Mukalazi

Before the development of a market economy, Ugandans used bags, strings, pots, and baskets made from local materials such as palm leaves, papyrus, banana leaves and fibers, grass, fibrous shrubs (jute and sisal), or clay for packaging, storage, and transporting of goods. Other than baked clay pots, all these materials do not last long. Moreover, they are biodegradable. Therefore, they pose little, if any, danger to the environment.

However, with the growth of petrochemical industries in a global economy, plastics rapidly replaced most natural fibers. People prefer them for the many conveniences they offer. They are light, flexible, water impermeable, and affordable. Unfortunately, most plastic products pose a tremendous threat to the environment as will be seen below.

In Uganda, as it is in many other countries, most users do not think twice about throwing plastics anywhere and anyhow. Somehow, they seem to think that the easy disposal of plastics is one of the conveniences they enjoy while being totally oblivious or ignorant of the great damage plastics can cause to the environment. Plastics can cause land degradation, water pollution, clogging of water drainage system, etc. City streets often flood because drainage channels are clogged by improperly discarded plastics. 

Stop Plastic PollutionWhen environmental activists drew attention to the problem, the effort to ban the use, sale, and manufacture of polythene/plastic bags (locally known as kaveera) below 30 microns started in 2011. However, it took years for the government to ban it. When the Uganda government finally imposed the ban in 2018, there was a huge sigh of relief from many Ugandans, especially the environmental enthusiasts.

But the enthusiasm soon turned into disappointment and frustration. Even with several directives from government, not much success has been recorded about the implementation of this ban. Polythene bags continue to be produced normally and sold in open markets across the entire country. Even after more than two years of the ban, there are still major concerns about the woeful failure of the implementation of the ban.

Of course, the negative effects of plastics are only part of the overall danger human activities cause to the environment. In this regard, while speaking to journalists on World Environment Day on June 5th, 2020, the Minister of State for Environment, Ms. Beatrice Anywar, said that the floods, the raising of the water levels of Lake Victoria and many others are signs that nature is speaking to us. Therefore, she appealed to Ugandans to listen to the “Voice for the Planet”.

Plastic PollutionAs we continue to grapple with the dire environmental effects of polythene bags that are estimated to take between 10 and 1,000 years to decompose, here comes the COVID-19 pandemic. I foresee yet another serious environmental challenge in the making–the COVID-19 face masks.

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country since March 2020, the government has developed a string of standard operating procedures (SOPs), including the wearing of face masks, aimed at containing the spread of the virus.
Today, it is a health requirement to wear a facemask while in public and the government has made efforts to freely distribute these masks to the masses.

 Statistics from the Ministry of Health indicated that by December 22 last year, 27.3 million masks had been distributed across the country. But here is the problem: despite people being told to wear face masks, little guidance has been given on how to dispose of or recycle them safely. I am particularly irked by the non-responsiveness of the relevant authorities, especially the Ministry of Health, to develop and enforce better disposal practices of these masks.

Globally, this challenge is also growing at a frightening pace due to the increased production and consumption of face masks–adding to the already vast plastic waste in the environment. Huge piles of discarded masks have been found dumped in waterways, drainage channels and on highways. Many of these face masks, particularly the single-use surgical masks, are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials and they pose health and environmental hazards.

First, if wrongly discarded, they can spread the infection among people who might be tempted to pick them up and reuse them. Studies have indicated that coronavirus can survive on surfaces for several days, therefore, discarded masks may pose risks of spreading the virus to garbage collectors, litter pickers or members of the public who come across those which are freshly discarded. 

Secondly, face masks discarded anyhow and anywhere will not only litter beautiful and healthy environments, but they may also clog up urban drainage systems. Furthermore, they are invariably washed into rivers and lakes, thus polluting water and harming wildlife that will eat them or become entangled in them. Plastic-based face masks discarded on land can also degrade the quality of land. They can act as barriers which can prevent plant growth. The best thing to do to prevent polluting the environment is to be conscientious about not littering the environment with used face masks.

Even if face masks are properly discarded in garbage receptacles, they will end up in a landfill where poor people may still try to retrieve them for reuse. They can be burnt, but that will also contribute to air pollution.

Truth be told, presently, we lack easily accessible and affordable options to avoid the problems face masks pose to the health of humans, wildlife, and the environment. Even WHO does not have one.  Nevertheless, there are at least some measures people can take even if they may not be 100% effective. For example, whenever possible, one should use face masks made of biodegradable materials. The advantage is that they do not last for hundreds of years as plastics do. Also, one can use cloth face masks which are better than plastics because they are washable and are reusable.

I do understand and agree that mobilization and awareness on COVID-19 prevention or treatment are currently a great priority. But again, I also find it equally important to create more public awareness on the safeguarding of our environment through proper management of discarded face masks.

And to avert this slow-rolling crisis, we need a strong combination of efforts from government, the private sector, non-government organizations and the public. Otherwise, we should brace ourselves for plastic-based face mask pollution as our next national pandemic!

Mr Mukalazi, the country director of Every Child Ministries, Uganda. bmukalazi@ecmafrica.org