Safety concerns rise with poor disposal of used face masks

Tuesday November 09 2021
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It is feared that face masks and gloves used in households, workplaces and on the street may end up in water courses and soil, putting human health and the natural ecosystem in danger. PHOTO | FILE

By Ange Iliza

Almost two years into the pandemic, efforts to rid the country of risks linked to disposal of waste from the growing use of personal protective equipment still face hurdles.

Despite the environment regulator’s regulations requiring that all PPE waste be disposed of at nearby pharmacies or health centres, the lack of framework of enforcement left these disposed improperly, t with volumes ending up in gutters and water carriages in neighbourhoods in Kigali.

“I didn’t know they were toxic. I usually throw them in ordinary waste bins. But I see used face masks littered all over in gutters and dumps,” said Innocent Masengesho, a retailer near a Remera bus station in Kicukiro.

Masengesho, who also sells facemasks, says three cartons of facemasks, each containing 50 masks, can be sold out in one day.

Health and environment experts warn face masks, gloves, and face shields that have been widely used by the public as protective gears contain plastics and substances that contaminate soil, rain, and air, thus humans, raising concerns when they are not properly treated.

“PPE waste is not a regular waste because it can be toxic to the environment and lives around and should be separated from compostable waste,” explained Egide Nkuranga, a member of Rwanda Association of Professional Environmental Practitioners.


In October last year, Rwanda Environment Management Authority jointly with the Ministry of Health and hired a waste collecting company, Coped, to collect PPE waste from all residential and commercial neighbourhoods in Kigali.

Sacks labeled “toxic content” were distributed to households in villages where face masks and the related would be disposed of.

Every week community health workers would collect the sacks and send them for incineration. The campaign, however, ran for one month.

“We did not collect enough because most sacks came back empty as community health workers could not reach all homes and some did not take it seriously,” said Paulin Buregeya, head of Coped.

Mr Buregeya added that apart from the project, PPEs are usually collected as other domestic waste and taken to the Nduba landfill. It is not separated or treated any other way. WHO regulations stipulate that hazardous health care waste should be incinerated.

Details of the PPEs collection and disposal project, which was funded by the UN’ Development Programme, show four Kigali sectors were covered in a pilot phase and later expanded to all sectors in October.

It had not been yet reported how much PPE waste was collected during the project but Mr Buregeya said in an interview that the amount littered is worrying.

The Ministry of Health Department of Environmental Health Desk told this publication that as long as funds to run the project are available, it will be expanded to more parts of the country.