PETALING JAYA: Malaysian groups are getting together and advocating for reusable face masks to protect the environment.
Many of those who are environmentally conscious decry the usage of disposable masks outside healthcare settings, where the risk does not seem to justify the mountain of plastic being generated when people discard single-use masks.
Carolyn Lau, an advocate for waste minimisation through Sampah.Menyampah, a group she co-founded, said disposable masks were the “new polluting plastic bag” when thoughtlessly discarded.
“A properly fitted fabric mask will be more effective than some non-N95 disposable ones that are worn incorrectly, ” said Lau, a landscape architect who had been wearing a self-made fabric mask for the last 10 weeks.
The use of reusable or fabric masks among non-frontliners and those who are not exposed to high risk is increasingly acceptable, with the World Health Organisation guideline that was revised on June 19 allowing for fabric masks for these people.
WHO’s advisory can be found at www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks. The site contains advice on how to wear a fabric mask safely.
There has been an increasing availability of fabric masks made by home-based entrepreneurs and even high-end fashion houses.
This is despite the decreasing prices of disposable masks. For example, a three-ply single-use medical mask can go down as low as 80 sen a piece, even though the ceiling price was set at RM1.50 on March 30.
Prof Moy Foong Ming, from Universiti Malaya’s Department of Social & Preventive Medicine, said reusable masks could be a viable solution as not everyone could afford to keep paying for disposables.
“My view is that we should ‘strongly encourage’ people to wear masks, especially when they are in places with poor ventilation, or where social distancing is not possible, in crowded places, using public transport, or when visiting any healthcare facility, ” she said.
Faizal Hamid, a senior fashion lecturer at UiTM, said that masks were “assuredly part of our future”.
“Mass mask-wearing will create a feeling of connection with those around us, especially when you are motivated by the need to protect others.
“Wearing a mask is a sartorial sign that you are willing to sacrifice a bit of personal freedom and comfort for the common good, ” he said.
Faizal said that those who were on the lookout for fabric masks were increasingly spoilt for choice.
“Lots of high-end brands are producing them. There is a mask for every taste and budget. Options range from those made with fine Italian fabric, others with sequins, and so on, ” he said.
“I think the fashion industry is committed towards producing something that does both – a mask that provides protection while offering a form of expression for the wearer, ” he said.
Fashion designer Melinda Looi said: “In places like South Korea and Japan, masks are worn during periods of high air pollution.
“In Malaysia, we also saw people wearing masks or respirators during the last episode of haze.
“There were also those who wore masks when they were sick for the sake of others around them, though on a much smaller scale compared to the Koreans and Japanese, ” said Looi, who fashions her masks from materials ranging form batik to jacquard to cotton.
“We also have our own prints, to give more colours to life, ” she said, adding that surgical masks should be reserved for frontliners and at-risk groups.
“The general public should stop using surgical masks, as they are bad for the environment.
“The use of disposables in hospitals is acceptable as they have proper ways to dispose of used personal protective equipment.
“In our cities, we can see so many disposable masks thrown all over, with people dumping them carelessly just before entering their cars.”
Waste minimisation aside, Looi was of the view that a mask was now a “must-have” accessory.
“Covid-19 is already a part of our lives. We must ensure that we continue to maintain good hygiene, and wear something to protect ourselves and those around us.”
Looi collaborated with another Malaysian designer Datuk Tom Abang Saufi to produce the #UnityMask in May as a tribute for frontliners, with a portion of proceeds going towards charity.
Social enterprises such as Komuniti Tukang Jahit Malaysia have changed their product range to include batik-themed masks so that their network of tailors from the B40 community can continue to have income during the MCO period.