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Concerns over discarded face masks and the circular economy

How to treat used face masks is a new problem emerging during the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Medical masks made of non-woven fabrics are durable, so they do not decompose easily in the natural environment. They are used once, so billions of masks are discarded every day around the world. This has caused an alarming problem of environmental pollution. The production of disposable medical masks is on a colossal scale, with around 43 billion units per month worldwide. With an average weight of a 3-layer medical mask of about 30 grams, thousands of tons of this type of waste are discharged into the environment every month.

The concern is that there are currently no official global guidelines for the handling or recycling of medical masks.

A recent study by RMIT International University (Australia) on the treatment of used masks as construction materials has received a lot of attention.

Accordingly, discarded masks are shredded and mixed into construction mortar. This kind of material meets civil engineering safety standards. The RMIT study showed that masks add strength to this material, which is used to build the foundation of roads and curbs. For each 1km of two-lane road, it will need up to three million discarded masks, equivalent to 93 tons of waste.

Waste is a resource

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Covid-19 pandemic has seriously affected many industries. To adapt in the new era, industries will have to restructure and reorient production and business activities. The trend of shifting to a "circular economy" will take place strongly, replacing the linear economy, for its sustainability and efficiency.

"Circular economy" is understood as a regenerative and restorative system, through a change in thinking in designing goods and services and in change in consumption behavior, thereby prolonging the life of materials, and transferring waste from the end of the system back to the beginning, minimizing the negative impact on the environment.

It is very different from the "linear economy" model, which is characterized by extraction of resources from the natural environment as an input for production, then consumption, and finally disposal into the environment, resulting in zn increase of waste, depletion of natural resources, and environmental pollution.

Economists say that humans have designed an economic system associated with waste and depletion of resources, and this needs to change. There must be a new mindset for the product lifecycle. Additional functions must be designed after the first use, creating products with high durability and less obsolescence, maximizing the use of raw materials and treatment processes, exploiting existing waste sources, considering waste a “secondary resource”. It must be directed towards production from recycled materials.

Opportunity for Vietnam

In the world, the leading countries in applying the "circular economy" model include Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Canada, the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.

About 34 countries with 118 typical models have implemented this transformation. In particular, Sweden is the leading country in applying the "circular economy" model with 99% of the waste recycled, and only 1% sent to landfills.

In these countries, the motto that garbage is also a resource has become a reality and applied thoroughly.

Vietnam is a small country, which ranks 68th in the world in terms of area, 15th in terms of population, but it ranks 4th in the world in terms of plastic waste, with about 1.83 million tons/year.

If Vietnam does not change the way of development, resource depletion and environmental pollution are inevitable.

It is estimated that the amount of waste in Vietnam will double in the next 15 years. Waste is increasing but recycling is inefficient, mainly landfilling, which is both wasteful and causes serious environmental problems.

Therefore, transforming from a "linear economy" to a "circular economy" should be considered a priority in Vietnam. The transition to a “circular economy” is a great opportunity for Vietnam’s fast and sustainable development when the Covid-19 pandemic is over.

Studies show that the "circular economy" helps to increase economic efficiency, increase employment, and reduce the impact on the environment. For example, the shrimp processing industry in Vietnam has 500,000 tons of by-products per year and if they are not treated, an environmental hazard is inevitable.

If Vietnamese firms invest in technology to process shrimp shells and heads into raw materials for pharmaceuticals, food, animal feed and fertilizer industries, they will earn added value of about $300 million per year. If advanced technology is applied, it can create value of up to nearly 2 billion USD/year. It is estimated that in Europe, the "circular economy" can generate 600 billion euros in benefits per year, with 580,000 new jobs.

However, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the biggest challenge when converting to a "circular economy" in Vietnam today is the perception of the authorities, businesses and people.

The "circular economy" is associated with technological innovation and new model design, while Vietnam is a developing country. Most of the technology is outdated and the production scale is small. Vietnam also lacks a legal framework for the development of circular economic models.

Without changing the way of development, resource depletion and environmental pollution are inevitable.

Tran Thuy

Officials highlight circular economy, macro-economic stability at Party Congress

Officials highlight circular economy, macro-economic stability at Party Congress

Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha on January 27 emphasised the importance of a circular economy 

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