The BBC has reported that single-use disposable surgical masks used during the COVID-19 pandemic, have been found littering coral reefs at Anilao, Batangas.
The popular dive spot is southeast of the Philippine capital, Manila.
BBC Philippine correspondent Howard Johnson joined dive professionals from Anilao Scuba Dive Centre as they resumed diving, following the national lockdown. The dive centre is affiliated to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Green Fins, which promotes sustainable marine tourism in South-East Asia.
The dive team found discarded plastic bottles, a tarpaulin and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) littering the dive site. Howard Johnson stated "take a look at the rubbish that was brought back by the divers. You can see here, blue face masks, lots of them. And the question is now, what happens to this rubbish?”
When I saw the blue PPE mask I honestly felt sad and guilty about it, because I use a blue PPE mask that's easy to throw away. Shala Caliao, Dive Professional
The dive professionals are raising a legitimate problem because the global demand for disposable face masks (which should not be worn longer than a few hours) was estimated in September 2020 at 129 billion per month, to protect public health amid COVID-19.
The Plague of Plastic
It has been suggested that the type of polymeric materials used in these face masks can be a potential source of plastic, and break down into microplastic pollution. These particles can easily enter the food chain because they are consumed by marine wildlife. The masks can also amplify the transmission of antibiotic resistance genes to the ecosystem.
According to a paper entitled 'Face mask and medical waste disposal during the novel COVID-19 pandemic in Asia' published in Case Studies in Chemical and Environmental Engineering, it was estimated the country uses 49 million face masks and generates 353.03 tons of medical waste daily.
Oliver, one of the dive pros, reported that he had collected at least ten masks from the reef. He could clearly see they had been there for some months, because the masks were covered in algae. He urged the public to be responsible and throw away their medical waste correctly.
Environmental groups have added their voice to this issue. They are urging the Philippine government to improve its handling of medical waste, to prevent further pollution of the seas.