Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a vital part of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Gloves and aprons became a part of daily life in hospitals and care homes, and masks were, and still are, a necessary part of life for millions of people. There was no time to find a more sustainable solution, as the priority worldwide became protecting healthcare workers and the public from contracting and passing on the disease in high-risk settings.
Disposal of PPE has had a negative impact on our already struggling environment. Made primarily from plastic, the majority of PPE goes into household waste, before going to landfill sites. Unfortunately, it’s also easy for lightweight masks to escape from the public’s pockets, or fly out of bins. This has meant that a significant amount has actually ended up in our oceans, and littered across cities and countryside.
So what impact is this having on our planet? We take a look.
Harming marine ecosystems
Microplastic is a huge problem for our oceans and rivers. These tiny particles are incredibly difficult to get rid of, and they poison the environment around them, as well as any wildlife that ingests them. They trick animals into thinking that they don’t need to eat, which then causes them to starve.
Microplastics also have a negative effect on coral reefs. They have been found to reduce the growth of corals, making them less healthy, and they also alter the success of photosynthesis in these species. With our reefs already under threat, keeping PPE waste out of the water should be a high priority.
Aprons and masks in particular have straps that can easily tangle around marine wildlife and birds as they swim through or float on the water. These animals can then get trapped, unable to escape, and they then starve to death or get injured. In some cases, they ingest the plastic whilst trying to hunt for food, and this will also likely cause them to die.
Ironically, PPE can also be the perfect breeding ground for some diseases that affect animals. The waste blows around, spreading the infection to other animals who come into contact with it. Over time, this can also harm humans as the disease mutates.
Contamination of natural resources
As well as the aforementioned issue of microplastics in the ocean, these tiny plastics can get spread across fields where farmers are growing their crops. This can mean that the fresh fruit and vegetables that enter the supermarkets actually contain small amounts of plastic, which are then ingested by humans.
PPE that hasn't broken down can also cause a threat. Over time, a build-up of masks in cities, for example, can lead to water systems and sewage systems becoming blocked. This can make it difficult to maintain a hygienic system, and requires extra work to keep things clean and moving.
To sum up
Clearly, it’s essential to keep PPE waste out of our ecosystems. However, it’s not as simple as being able to ban single-use plastic PPE. Instead, governments and companies should make it as simple as possible to correctly dispose of PPE.