A recent inspection of the Soko Islands found 100 discarded single-use face masks on the beaches of this uninhabited archipelago. Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a vital part of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this article, we consider what is happening to all the discarded PPE.
In recent years, industry, regulatory authorities and consumers have all been taking steps to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated. Various regions have introduced regulations to restrict single-use plastics in order to protect the environment. Populations around the world have been galvanized by programs such as Blue Planet II, which contained images of an albatross unwittingly feeding its young discarded plastics and a whale mother nursing its dead calf that had been poisoned by plastic. It appeared as though the world was finally waking up to the impact of plastic pollution upon our planet.
COVID-19 has hindered this progress because PPE has been a vital part of our response to the pandemic. Governments have worked hard to ensure supplies of gloves, masks, gowns, etc. reach frontline medical staff, because they offer the best protection against spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It is also clear that, as countries begin to ease lockdown rules, PPE will also play an important role in protecting us and allowing us to return to a form of normality.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the world needed 89+ million masks, 30 million gowns, 1.59 million goggles, and 76 million gloves every month to fight COVID-19. In the UK alone, between the end of February and mid-April, more than one billion items of PPE were distributed
A 2015 study estimated that around 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year and between 5 and 13 million tons of this ends up in our oceans. By 2017, the European Union was estimating total global production of plastic had risen to 348 million tons, and by 2018 the estimate was 422 million tons. It is estimated there are now 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean, weighing an estimated 269,000 tons.
There is a risk that our increased use of PPE will only add to this problem. One study showed that if every individual used one single-use face mask a day for a year, in the UK alone this would create an additional 66,000 tons of contaminated waste and 57,000 tons of plastic packaging.
Much of the medical-grade PPE is made from polypropylene, a very dense thermoplastic, which is non-biodegradable and non-recyclable. This takes around 500 years to biodegrade. During the biodegradation process, it will initially breakdown into microplastics, which can attract pesticides and other harmful chemicals. This means marine animals are not only eating plastics, they are also being poisoned by harmful chemicals.
Microplastics also interfere with the production of oxygen. When they are dissolved into the ocean water, they inhibit the healthy function of Prochlorococcus, which produces around ten percent of the Earth’s oxygen. It has also been estimated plastic pollution has led to us consuming one spoonful of plastic a week via our drinking water.
There is a hard trade-off to be made between individual safety and protecting the environment. In the medical environment, disposable PPE is undoubtedly essential. However, there is some debate about the necessity of using single-use PPE in non-medical environments. For example, the WHO has stated that widespread use of plastic gloves may actually assist the spread of the virus and it is far better to simply wash hands correctly.
As an alternative to single-use face masks, many authorities are now advising the use of reusable cloth masks in non-medical situations. They are considered to be just as effective and have the advantage of being less harmful to the environment.
COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the planet. Until there is a vaccine, PPE offers us the best protection against infection. However, this does not mean as countries, businesses, and individuals, we should ignore its potential impact on the environment. As we move forward, we need to find better ways to protect ourselves while also lessening the impact on the planet.
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