It’s another sad reality of the COVID-19 era that some of the steps we’re taking to stay safe and combat the coronavirus spread are often in opposition to hard-fought efforts to curb the use of plastics for a cleaner planet. Early in the pandemic, as the use of reusable items was scaled back for fear of the virus spreading via objects, planned plastic bag bans were rolled back or postponed across the country. What’s more, an entirely new form of plastic pollution has surged—waste from PPE, or personal protective equipment—and we’re just starting to understand its impact.
PPE waste was mostly anecdotal in the early stages of the pandemic, but now the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group, has concrete data based on waste collection trends by individuals around the world. Anyone can download the group’s app, Clean Swell, and log the items they pick up on beaches and coastlines—and since July 2020, the app has contained a new PPE category. In the six months between July and December, according to a new report published by the group, users reported a total of 107,219 items of PPE waste collected.
The group believes that the actual quantity of PPE—the masks, gloves, sanitizing wipes, and face shields that have become a part of our daily lives—is much higher, since 30% of people who logged trash items reported not to have counted PPE items. Throughout 2020, 94% of collectors reported observing some form of PPE; half said they saw it daily, and 42% weekly or monthly. Nearly half said 75% or more of the PPE items they saw were single-use. Of the 115 countries where Ocean Conservancy cleanups take place, PPE items were reported in 70. “It’s not like there is any place that is largely immune from this,” says Nick Mallos, senior director of the group’s Trash Free Seas Program. “It is largely homogenous on shorelines around the world, whether inland or at the coast.”
Eighty percent of collectors said masks were the most commonly seen item. Health authorities have recommended the use of masks to reduce transmissions; during the deadly winter surge of cases, they encouraged the practice of double-masking, and reports have suggested that single-use surgical masks may provide more protection than some reusable cloth masks. But surgical masks are lightweight items that, even if disposed of properly, can fly out of trash cans and onto streets and eventually find their way to oceans. More than a third of collectors said they’d observed PPE submerged in bodies of water.
In the ocean, those items become threats to marine wildlife such as crabs, turtles, and seabirds, which can get entangled in masks’ ear straps. In addition, because these masks are primarily made from polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer, they can release microplastic fibers as they break down—as many as 173,000 a day per mask, according to one study. Those fibers, which could be cancerous and even cause reproductive issues, can then be ingested by marine mammals, and then by humans, as we consume seafood.
The nonprofit stresses that public health comes first. “First and foremost, we are encouraging and advising everyone to follow their local health official guidelines,” Mallos says. But, we can try to dispose of PPE in secure, covered locations, in the home where possible, to lower chances that it escapes into the waste stream. We can also snip the loops on our masks to reduce animal entanglement. After all, PPE usage may continue, even post-vaccinations, and many parts of the world still won’t get vaccinations for a while. “We need to ensure that with that growth,” he says, “it does not, by default, become a new top-polluting item of our environment.”
Since we have to keep using PPE for our safety, we should prioritize curbing other harmful plastics—tackling the “broader plastic pollution issue that has been plaguing us for decades now,” Mallos says. Single-use plastic consumption is prevalent during the pandemic, in the form of increased plastic bags and takeout food containers. He hopes the upside is that we’re thinking more about the problematic use of plastics, because we’re using them more. Mallos advises that consumers and businesses can stop using single-use plastic bags. The group has also backed the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, a bill set to be delivered to Congress this week, which would reduce single-use plastic use, improve recycling rates, and hold companies accountable for their plastic usage.
“There is just an unnecessary amount of single-use plastics that we can do without,” he says. “There are suitable alternatives for those products that do not have the same end-of-life impact on the environment.”