The Face Mask Dilemma: Can Social Media Campaigns Fight the Issue of COVID-19 Littering?

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Face masks have played a significant role worldwide in curbing the spread of COVID-19. But there have been ongoing debates on the subject – from how useful they are, to how we should be wearing them properly. And now, a new debate arises – are they giving way to a new phenomenon of COVID-19 waste littering? We spoke to YAM Tengku Zatashah who has been actively educating and rallying Malaysians to curb this issue through her social media campaign #NoMoreLitter #BecauseWeCare. The key question we explore is can social media campaigns truly effect real change? And if so, how?

At the height of the global lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic, social newsfeeds were chockful of stories of the environmental benefits of a world where people were staying in. But as restrictions have been gradually eased, the question is: how can we sustain some of the new norms that have benefited the environment? One particular challenge that the pandemic has brought about is what some have termed “COVID waste littering” – in other words, the improper disposal of face masks, gloves and other protective gear.

How do we navigate through the tension of dealing with items which on the one hand are helping us curb the spread of infections, but on the other, are contributing to the ongoing issue of pollution? To give you an idea of the level of waste that we’re dealing with globally, in a month, a total of 129 billion disposable face masks go straight to our landfills.

Locally, the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), collected a whopping 1,106 pieces of face masks and gloves across a 200-kilometre coastline stretch alone.¹

“I had picked up 20 masks in a single day myself!” exclaimed YAM Tengku Zatashah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, who activated the #NoMoreLitter #BecauseWeCare movement on social media in conjunction with World Environment Day.

As the founder and advocate of other impactful environmental movements such as the #saynomore2plastic and the #zerofoodwastage campaigns, YAM Tengku Zatashah is no stranger to getting her hands dirty (no pun intended) to protect our environment.

“I’ve had to pick up other people’s littered masks myself by using a tissue, picking it up, throwing it in the bin and sanitising my hands a lot,” she added, which is why she knew that activating another campaign called #NoMoreLitter #BecauseWeCare would be a timely and relevant call to combat the issue of COVID waste littering.

Having gotten the opportunity to interview her, I wanted to get her thoughts on how activists can use social media campaigns to truly effect real change. From our conversation, these are some of the key takeaways we picked out.

Educate, educate, educate.

For Tengku Zatashah, education is the starting point. In the age of social distancing, while it’s of utmost importance to use face masks, the campaign takes a two-pronged approach towards educating the public about the issue at hand – first by drawing attention to the issue of improper disposal, then encouraging mindfulness towards one another as a community working towards a common goal.

“We must take care of each other to take care of the planet,” she further explained.

Before the launch of her campaign, YAM Tengku Zatashah got the nation’s attention not by merely talking about the issue but showing us – taking pictures of masks and gloves littering our streets. This sets the stage for her to create a sense of urgency for her audience to take action.

Sure enough, her #NoMoreLitter #BecauseWeCare campaign caught the attention of hundreds of people from all corners of the globe who took part in the movement by holding up signages with the hashtag.

But as widespread social media movements can go, I was interested to know how we can go a step further to reach those in the interiors who may not have internet access. Is this an issue that would even concern a more rural audience? YAM Tengku Zatashah weighed in on this suggesting that if we are able to grow the conversation in the cities on both an individual and organisational level, we will eventually widen the pool of advocates and resources to be able to bring the movement to the rural areas.

“Actions speak louder than words”

Reach is one thing, but many naysayers will be quick to question the effectiveness of these movements in impacting real change. Think of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and how much of the world (not all) were quick to join in without actually following up with action towards the cause. Social media campaigns need to be intentional about their call to action so that those who join in do so purposefully. When it comes to social media campaigns, as easy as it is to create awareness about an issue, it is just as easy for many people to blindly support movements without the proper understanding of the background or messaging of it. This is why some of these movements fail to inspire real action or change.

Fully aware of the potential pitfalls of social media movements, YAM Tengku Zatashah was quick to follow through with action by organising the ICC back in September – an initiative which coordinated 70 beach clean-ups across 11 states with a total of 3,500 volunteers who extracted more than 11 tonnes of trash – all in a single day.² YAM Tengku Zatashah is confident that given the natural advocacy among the volunteers, this will be continued even without a formal initiative set in place moving forward.

On top of this, the campaign also encouraged the use of reusable face masks which have also become somewhat of a fashion trend in 2020. But vanity aside, her messaging is about getting people to be aware of the benefits to the environment when we opt for the more fashion-forward option.

“Disposable face masks are very important. We donate and give face masks all the time to the urban poor families and the homeless because safety and hygiene are key. But for others who can switch to reusable face masks to reduce waste, then that’s even better,” she said.

YAM Tengku Zatashah has been actively endorsing Komuniti Tukang Jahit, an organisation that not only contributes to environmental sustainability, but also empowers female homebased tailors by providing opportunities to produce and sell beautifully handsewn batik masks – both an environmental and socio-economic win.

As much as we would all like to go back to normal, until a vaccine is rolled out, face masks are likely here to stay. Whether you prefer the single-use face masks or the reusable ones, what’s important is being intentional about both the usage and disposal so that it doesn’t become another issue on top of the pandemic.

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  1. Data extracted from the ICC 2020 Report that has yet to be made public online.
  2. Data extracted from the ICC 2020 Report that has yet to be made public online.