Discarded face masks clutter beaches, nature trails

HONG KONG: Discarded face masks are piling up on Hong Kong’s beaches and nature trails, with environmental groups warning that the waste is posing a huge threat to marine life and wildlife habitats.
Most of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million people have for weeks been putting on single-use face masks every day in the hope of warding off the coronavirus, which has infected 126 people in the city and killed three of them.
But huge numbers of the masks are not disposed of properly, and have instead ended up dumped in the countryside or the sea, where marine life can mistake them for food, washing up on beaches along with the usual plastic bags and other trash.
Environmental groups, already grappling with the flow of marine trash from mainland China and elsewhere, say the cast-off coronavirus masks have compounded the problem and also raised concern about the spread of germs.
“We only have had masks for the last six to eight weeks, in a massive volume … we are now seeing the effect on the environment,” said Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia.
Stokes cited the example of Hong Kong’s isolated and uninhabited Soko islands, south of its international airport. He said he initially found 70 discarded masks on 100 m stretch of beach and when he came back a week later, there were more than 30 new ones. Other beaches around the city tell a similar story, he said.
“Nobody wants to go to the forest and find masks littered everywhere or used masks on the beaches. It is unhygienic and dangerous,” said Laurence McCook, head of Oceans Conservation at the WWF in Hong Kong.
The masks are made of polypropylene and are not going to break down quickly, said Tracey Read, founder of the group Plastic Free Seas.
“People think they’re protecting themselves but it’s not just about protecting yourselves, you need to protect everybody.” — Reuters