Personal protective equipment (PPE) is becoming increasingly common in our new normal, and not just for those in the medical field. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing face coverings in public settings, particularly in crowded places where social distancing can be difficult to maintain. They also recommend using sanitary wipes and wearing disposable gloves in certain situations. Since disposable PPE is being used at an increased rate, many sustainability and plastic pollution experts are concerned about whether people are properly disposing of this gear. As it turns out, PPE environmental impact is real, and it’s negative.
Mark Benfield, an oceanographer who studies plastic pollution and ecology, and teaches on this topic at Louisiana State University, started noticing a startling amount of PPE litter in his neighborhood in Baton Rouge at the beginning of April. He started tracking the litter, going on the same walk every couple of days to see if the situation was getting better or worse. The amount of litter increased, leading Benfield to expand his tracking area and start reaching out to others for data.
“I reached out to colleagues in several different countries,” he said. “Now it’s kind of turned into a larger project.” In nearly every location Benfield and his colleagues is monitoring, litter of PPE has increased. From Hong Kong to the cities in Turkey and Italy, wipes, masks, and gloves are ending up in the streets, beaches and parks. In the U.S., Benfield is working with about 25 people who have emailed him wanting to help collect data. (Those interested in helping map out PPE litter in their area can email him at email@example.com.)
Benfield said in his preliminary research that gloves are the most common PPE waste, followed by wipes and masks. Although his research is just getting started, he’s looking to find out if PPE is going into the waterways, and ultimately, into the ocean. “[PPE] isn’t something we normally think of when we think of plastic waste,” he said. “We don’t think of medical masks, gloves, and wipes ending up in the ocean.”
PPE is not recyclable or biodegradable, and it needs to be treated as waste. Some experts say PPE is ending up at recycling plants. That may be due to misinformation about how to dispose of masks, gloves, and wipes. “Even if they are plastic, they are not treated as curbside recycling,” David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, said in a CNN article. “They should be placed in a securely tight garbage bag and be put out with the regular trash for collection.”
So, what can we do about the PPE waste issue? Gloves, masks, and wipes are playing a vital role in our lives right now as a way to protect people from contracting and spreading the coronavirus. Still, harming our environment and possibly polluting the ocean should not be a necessary consequence.
Benfield thinks there are a few ways we can stay safe during this time without harming the planet. For masks, he thinks we should all be wearing reusable ones. In all of his tracking, he’s only come across one handmade cloth mask on the street. Luckily, cloth face masks are getting easier and easier to come by, with numerous brands across the world making them. You can also make your own reusable mask at home if you have some cotton, thread, and some sewing skills.
Benfield thinks more trash cans could also be a helpful solution to the litter problem. The only city he hasn’t seen the PPE litter problem worsening is Jingdezhen, China. He thinks a big part of this is because there are waste bins setup specifically for PPE. He’s found that cities littered with PPE typically don’t have a trash can nearby. “There’s a lot of litter near bus stops. Maybe people are getting onto the bus and ditching the gloves,” he said. “I think it’s a lot of people using this stuff and not thinking about it. Because there’s not a convenient garbage nearby, they just stash it.”
More instructions posted in public places, which could clarify misinformation and provide tips on how to safely dispose of PPE, could also be helpful. “More signage is needed to educate people about this,” he said. “I haven’t seen any signage or directions anywhere I’ve gone, and I haven’t heard of any from other surveyors.”
So how can you help? Just like with clothing, PPE that can be worn, washed, and reused will help prevent landfills from taking on all our waste. You can find plenty of face mask sewing tutorials online, and using fabric from a piece of clothing you no longer wear is an excellent way to repurpose the garment instead of tossing it. If you must wear non-reusable PPE, make sure that you’re disposing of it properly and limiting your use whenever it is safely possible to do so.