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2022-06-23

Face masks are no longer required. Now, what do we do with all of them?

On Wednesday (22/06/2022), health minister Joe Phaahla quietly gazetted a notice that immediately removed any legal obligation to wear a face mask in South Africa.


Phillip de Wet | Business Insider SA

Face masks have been a feature of South African life for more than two years, first everywhere in public, then when not exercising or eating, and most recently only in public indoor spaces and on public transport.

Then they were suddenly gone.

While some sectors think that is long overdue, some experts have recommended keeping masks on, at the very least in specific spaces such as healthcare facilities.

Experience in other countries suggests the vast majority of people will stop wearing masks the moment a legal obligation to do so ends, and at least a few are likely to ritualistically set fire to their masks.

For everyone else, the question looms: what happens to those masks now?

Keeping a couple to hand is prudent. By entirely repealing swathes of post-lockdown regulations, Phaahla gave up the power to turn the mask mandate on and off as he sees fit. He can, however, reimpose masks through a new mandate at any time, and make them legally required again through a gazetted notice drawing on his powers to deal with highly infectious diseases.

His cabinet colleague Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma too has that power; as minister of cooperative governance she can declare a new national state of disaster, then make masks mandatory using the enormous reach she has to deal with disasters.

Beyond keeping an emergency supply, dealing with masks gets tricky. 

Like nearly anything made from fabric, reusable cloth masks are hard to recycle. Disposable masks, mostly made of plastic, are not suitable for typical recycling channels either.

In reality, virtually all masks are most likely to end up in the trash, and from there go to landfill sites, becoming part of the long-running problem of dealing with general waste.

There is, at least, one thing you can do to mitigate the potential harm: cut the rubber bands on both sides of a disposable mask before disposing of it.


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