OLEWU, JOSHUA UCHECHUKWU
On the 31st of December 2019, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) – a zoonotic virus caused by a new strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that has not been previously identified in humans got reported to the World Health Organization in Wuhan, China. Soon after the first report, there has been records of its widespread all over the countries of the world, claiming lots of lives and greatly affecting human activities. The pandemic gave rise to a new world-culture of ‘social distancing’ among other measures propagated for the reduction of the spread of the virus. Such other measures propagated includes the washing of hands, use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, gloves and face masks.
In line with this situation, the Nigerian state Governors have asked President Muhammadu Buhari to approve the compulsory use of face masks in public as confirmed coronavirus cases rise, to ensure a uniform and coordinated policy at federal and state levels to tackle the virus. Further on this and while the suggestion to the Federal Government awaits approval, some state Governors have already passed instructions to this effect in their states. For instance, Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu announced the compulsory use of face mask by residents from April 27, 2020 as part of measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 pandemic in the state.
Every action or decision causes a consequence either long-term, short-term, positive and/ or negative. While the use of face masks and the decision for the compulsory use of same are aimed at combating the spread of Covid-19, the consequence on the other side of the coin should not go unrecognized as they are not so kind to the environment. For one thing, they generate a lot of waste. Increase in the use of face masks entails increase in face mask and its related wastes and improper disposal of these face masks can harm the environment. In other words, it is safe to assert that face masks are essential but biohazard commodities when not properly managed.
Keywords; Coronavirus/Covid-19, Face Mask, Surgical Face Masks, Cloth Mask, Disposal of Mask, Environmental Law, Sustainable Environment.
BRIEF NOTES ABOUT FACE MASKS AND THE ENVIRONMENT
A face mask covers the nose and mouth so that fluids contacting the outer surface of the mask will not immediately soak through to the interior of the mask and contact the wearer’s lips or skin.
The material composition of the modern mask is mainly polypropylene (PP). Polypropylene is usually extruded into many plastic products and fibres for employment in industrial/household textiles.
While the application of polypropylene on a product takes the advantage of the toughness, resilience and water resistance of the polymer, the product it is made of does not decay. Special measures are adopted in the management of waste products that do not decompose and negligence over this could among other things, lead to the general contamination of the environment, blockage of waterways, causing flooding, emptying of waste into open water bodies and endangering aqua-life.
It is worthy to note that amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise in the prices of commodities, locally made face masks from mere fabrics, have become rampant. Although these local face masks (cloth/fabric masks) does not possess the characteristics stated above of the surgical masks, they are not exempted as constituting waste products after use.
Thus, both the polypropylene-made face mask and the mere fabric/ cloth mask constitutes waste. Their proper disposal requires the activation of acute consciousness and care in all person in order not to harm the environment. What constitutes proper ways of waste disposal includes the provisions of statutes, directives by manufacturers of the concerned material etc. While improper disposal entails throwing the used mask indiscriminately in lifts, parks, workplaces, homes and walkways as it can pose potential health and environmental hazards to people who come in contact with such masks and environment.
RECOMMENDED ATTITUDE TOWARDS FACE MASK DISPOSAL.
- Cloth/ mere fabric mask (Wash) – Should be washed properly and frequently and left to hang and air dry. When torn or no longer worthy of use, should be properly disposed at designated bins.
- Surgical mask (Fold, tie, wrap) –After taking the mask off, fold it half inwards, such that droplets from mouth and nose are not exposed. Then, fold the mask into another half, until it looks like a roll and not unravel. Then wrap the mask in a tissue paper or polythene bag and immediately discard it in the waste bag for subsequent disposal at designated locations.
CAIRO (2020) posits that medical waste of face masks and gloves should be washed before being disposed of, in a bid to prevent passing the novel Coronavirus (C0VID-19) to the garbage collectors. The author agrees with this directive of Cairo Government, as it casts no doubt that some viruses can survive between a few hours and some, a few days.
DISPOSAL OF WASTE IN NIGERIA: THE POSITION OF THE LAW
In Nigeria, the proper disposal of waste and waste management is governed principally by the NESREA Act, being an Act which provides for the establishment of the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) charged with responsibility for the protection and development of the environment in Nigeria and for related matters.
In section 34 of the Act, the Minister for Environment is empowered to make regulations with respect to specific matters and generally for the purposes of carrying out or giving full effects to the functions of the Agency under the Act. The National Environmental (Sanitation and Wastes Control) Regulations 2009 (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Regulation’) is one of the Regulations made pursuant to the power of the Minister in section 34.
The Regulation applies to issues in environmental sanitation and all categories of wastes and provides the legal framework for the adoption of sustainable and environment-friendly practices, in environmental sanitation and waste management, to minimize pollution.
Regulation 3 (1) – (5) provides thus;
- 3. (1) No person is to discard, throw or drop any litter or any similar refuse anywhere except in designated litter bins.
(2) No owner, operator, occupant or person in care, management of control of premises is to allow the release of litter into the environment.
(3) No occupant or passenger of any vehicle is to throw or drop any litter onto the streets, roads, highways, public spaces and other undesignated places.
A careful perusal of the foregoing shows that they create responsibilities for both individual persons and corporate entities. The responsibility is to avoid dropping any litter or any similar refuse anywhere except at designated litter bins and not to allow the release of litter into the environment respectively. This is to ensure there is no blockage of the streets, walkways, drains etc. Thus, individual users of face masks as well as occupiers of premises (say health facilities, where the use of face masks and other wastes are more likely), should activate their consciousness not to go against the provisions of this Regulation.
General offences under as recorded in Reg. 74 states that it shall be an offence if a person fails to:
- a) comply with the conditions of any guideline, standard or Permit;
- b) comply with the requirements of an enforcement notice, under the Regulations; and
- c) comply without reasonable excuse with any requirement imposed by a notice served by the Agency.
The punishments of the offences in Reg. 74 are stated in Reg. 98 thus; any person who violates regulation 74 of these Regulations shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine of N250, 000:00 or imprisonment for eighteen (18) months or to both such fine and imprisonment.
At this juncture, it is safe to draw the conclusion that throwing used masks indiscriminately in lifts, parks, workplaces, homes, and walkways, just as other wastes, contaminates the environment, is improper and offends the environmental laws of Nigeria on waste disposal and management.
The Government and the Media: Sequel to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Federal Government has through the NCDC (National Centre for Disease Control), shared some pieces of information on how to use face masks. While this step is applauded, it is suggested that improvement and emphasis be made on the health and environmental detriments of improper disposal of face masks and better ways like text messages, should be employed to cause wider dissemination of this knowledge. The media can also feature adequately in this responsibility. In addition, the government should ensure the functionality of existing designated bins and as well, create more to aid proper disposal.
The manufacturers: Manufacturers of face masks are urged to provide information on how to dispose of their products and warnings that emphasize the environmental detriments of impropriety in the disposal face masks.
Health Care facilities and other owners of premises should make adequate provision for waste disposal and management (especially, face mask and related wastes) to avoid litter and contamination of the environment.
Vendors and the citizens: At the points of purchase of face masks and its related, vendors should be able to educate their customers either directly by oral communication or by the use of posted short messages on how to properly dispose of facial masks in protection of the environment. The citizens should be able to comply with the directives provided by the government, the law, the manufacturers, the vendors and the media to ensure a sustainable environment for all.
All the same, the use of fabric mask is recommended since it can be washed and reused and thus, reduce waste.
While in fear of and taking precautions over the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone in Nigeria and the world are implored not to forget that it is not just the use of a mask that is important but, it is equally important to dispose of it properly and avoid causing environmental contamination and other hazards.
An unhealthy environment is not good for any human neither does it support the environment and national development. Thus, all hands must be on deck to manage anti-environmental substances and uphold attitudes that enriches the safety of the human environment. Contrary attitudes in addition to the above, amount to crimes under Nigerian environmental laws.
 OLEWU, Joshua UcheChukwu is a 400 Level undergraduate student of the Faculty of Law, University of Nigeria Nsukka (Enugu Campus) and an Energy and Environmental Law Enthusiast. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org / 08108129283
 https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/world/nigeria-s-governors-seek-to-make-face-masks-compulsory-in-public-12677758 accessed on 29th April, 2020
 https://www.vanguardngr.com/2020/04/covid-19-sanwo-olu-directs-compulsory-use-of-face-mask-from-monday/ accessed on 29th April, 2020
 This is a gaseous compound obtained by the thermal cracking of ethane, propane, butane, and the naphtha fraction of petroleum. Retrieved from; https://www.britannica.com/science/polypropylene accessed on 29th April, 2020
 Even though less waste
 https://www.narayanahealth.org/blog/know-about-proper-usage-disposal-and-reuse-of-mask/ accessed on 29th April, 2020
 https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/6/84559/COVID-19-How-to-dispose-of-used-face-mask-gloves accessed on 29th April, 2020
 National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (Establishment) Act, 2007 Act no. 25. The Act repeals the Federal Environmental Protection Agency Act
 Long title to the Act. See also, section 2 of the NESREA Act
 Regulation 1 and 2