For the last eighteen months, humanity has been trapped between two existential crises. On one side, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s lives, national health systems, and economies around the globe, while, on the other side, relentless damage to the environment continues to have devastating real-world consequences.
The two issues, however, are not unconnected.
The widespread use of personal protective equipment (PPE) has become a necessity in order to minimize the spread of coronavirus infections. This means masks, gloves, and other protective gear which were once mostly used in healthcare settings are now used widely by the public in many nations around the globe.
Along with vaccines and social distancing, PPE has been one of the three principal forms of defense against the spread of the potentially deadly disease. But extensive use of disposable PPE has brought with it unintended consequences—contributing significant damage to the environment—particularly in terms of the amount of plastic pollution entering oceans.
This is occurring just when it seems that the message about the long-lasting damage plastic was doing to the planet was finally being heard.
“Before the pandemic began, the tide seemed to be slowly turning in the fight against plastic pollution,” said Will McCallum, Head of Oceans at Greenpeace UK. “But the dramatic rise in single-use plastics during the pandemic, which can be seen in the form of discarded PPE and plastic bags on our beaches, in our rivers and oceans, and on our streets, risks undermining so much of the progress that has been made in recent years.”
The Scale of the Impact
When it comes to how much PPE the world goes through every day, the numbers are astronomical. One study estimates that 3.4 billion face masks are thrown away every day. Another estimate 190 billion face masks per month (4.3 billion per day) and 65 billion gloves.
In England alone, the use of PPE in the first six months of the pandemic added an additional 1% to the country’s carbon burden according to a study by Brighton and Sussex Medical School. The report’s lead author Chantelle Rizan, a doctor and sustainable surgery fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare in Oxford, said, “Our research looked at the carbon footprint of PPE supplied to health and social care in the first six months of the pandemic, and we were shocked that this equated to the equivalent of flying as a passenger from London to New York 244 times each and every day.”
Where Does the PPE Go?
The surge in demand for disposable PPE as the pandemic unfolded was so massive that waste disposal systems were simply unable to keep up. In China’s Hubei Province for example, infectious medical waste increased by 600% from 40 tons per day to 240 tons per day, overwhelming the existing medical transport and disposal infrastructure around hospitals.
The sheer amount of PPE and the lack of places to dispose of it have led to it increasingly being discarded on the streets and finding its way into the world’s waterways. Last year, the Great British Beach clean by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) found gloves or masks on 30% of all beaches surveyed.
And because of the materials used in its construction, once the PPE is there, it is not disappearing anytime soon. According to Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceansAsia, single-use face masks are often made with polypropylene plastic, which can take as long as 450 years to decompose.
Along with increased production of PPE and a lack of waste infrastructure to manage growing demand, there are a number of other factors that contribute to littering PPE in such high quantities, from a lack of available disposal bins to simple carelessness.
Steve Hynd, Policy Manager at the environmental organization City to Sea, identified that part of the problem was also communication. “There is a clear lack of messaging or guidance for people about the responsible way to interact with PPE,” he said. “It should be part of any official guidance on PPE what is best to do with it after use.”
Devastating Impact on the Environment
Using plastic in PPE is problematic, because 79% of all plastic produced globally has not been recycled, typically ending up at landfill or entering our oceans where they break down into toxic microplastics.
The French environmental organization, Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) has released footage of PPE littering ocean floors, with their founder, Laurent Lombard, warning that there could soon be “more masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean.”
Hynd said, “These single-use plastic masks are finding their way into our natural environment where they are entangling wildlife, breaking down, being consumed by wildlife, and therefore entering the food chain. It is significantly contributing to the wider problem of plastic pollution.”
It is not just the unsightly nature of PPE and its physical impact on wildlife that are the problem either. Sunlight and heat cause plastic to release greenhouse gases which accelerate climate change. As that speeds up and the planet gets hotter, the plastic breaks down into more methane and ethylene, increasing the rate of climate change and causing something of a feedback loop.
The problem is likely to get worse too, according to Rizan. “If we use traditional PPE at the rates we have seen over this last year, we will continue to have significant detrimental impact on the environment. This in turn has a detrimental impact on human health, alongside contributing to species loss and resource depletion.”
Health Risks with Discarded PPE
Of course, by its very nature, discarded PPE is not just a problem for the environment but a potential health hazard too. “There is potential infection risk associated with handling PPE litter if it has been recently discarded, although this can be minimized using a no-touch technique such as using a litter grabber,” said Rizan.
When it comes to reducing the impact of PPE on the environment, action can be taken at the governmental and individual levels.
Rizan said, “Our research highlights a number of key areas that can help reduce the environmental impact whilst maintaining safe levels of protection for patient and staff.” She said these strategies included shifting to domestic manufacture of PPE, rationing glove use (such as by using hand washing where clinically appropriate), using reusable alternatives where available, as well as recycling.
McCallum added that, throughout the duration of the pandemic, lawmakers in Great Britain had a big role to play in getting the message across that PPE does not have to be non-reusable. “While it was correct to be cautious at the beginning of an unprecedented global pandemic, the (British) Government could have made it clearer from the outset that reusable face masks and food packaging are just as safe and effective for members of the public as single-use alternatives and far less harmful for the environment.”
For individuals, minimizing the use of non-recyclable PPE and utilizing reusable protective gear when appropriate are keys to staying safe, while also helping reduce the impact on the environment, according to Rizan. “We feel that awareness is key, so that individuals have the knowledge to make the decision to take responsibility for their PPE waste and, better still, to transition to reusable PPE solutions.”
Hynd agreed. He said the most important thing that most ordinary people could do was carry a reusable mask, wash it regularly, and use it time and time again. “This would hugely cut down on the number of single-use plastic masks used and thrown away.”
“If you invest a small amount into buying a few reusable masks you will save money very quickly and reduce your environmental impact significantly.”
Hynd also hailed the introduction of new mask recycling schemes in some stores, but warned, “This isn’t a silver bullet. It’s really just a drop in a very plastic polluted ocean. We are being flooded with single-use plastics and the only way to stop this flood is by turning off the taps. And for masks, this means promoting the use of reusable masks wherever appropriate.”
*Mark Smith is a journalist and author from the UK. He has written on subjects ranging from business and technology to world affairs, history, and popular culture for the Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, and magazines in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia.