The ugly truth about P.P.E’s effect on the environment

2021-11-02

 |  Science & The Environment

What is P.P.E.?

The use of personal protective equipment, otherwise known as P.P.E., has significantly grown over the course of this global pandemic. While P.P.E. comes in many forms including hard helmets, ear plugs and safety shoes, for the purpose of this article we will be looking only at P.P.E. specific to the pandemic. Currently, its most prominent use can be seen with face masks (along with gloves and face shields among other similar equipment) protecting from the spread of COVID-19. While these are an essential part of protecting others, the negative effects of P.P.E. on the environment has not gone unnoticed. Improper disposal and manufacturing practices have posed a large threat to many marine species.

How P.P.E. affects marine life

With increased usage during COVID-19, single-use P.P.E. is increasingly being disposed of improperly at a high rate, having vast effects on marine life. An estimated 6.8 billion disposable face masks are being used daily, and over 1.5 billion masks have entered our oceans in 2020. Masks being disposed of improperly release toxic chemicals into our oceans, lead to microplastics ending up in our food system, and pose a threat to many marine predators who mistake P.P.E for prey. Production companies and national governments need to discover ways to better recycle, dispose of, and produce P.P.E before the environment is further harmed.

What is being done right now

Currently, there are a variety of global organizations aiding to clean up ocean waste. One based in Canada is called The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. This organization, which is supported by the federal government, aims to reduce the harmful effects of shoreline litter and protect our oceans. Over the course of the pandemic they shut down operations to practice social distancing and focused instead on planning smaller or solo team cleanups to take place when restrictions were lifted. They continued to have virtual meetings and stay connected with volunteers allowing them to still operate 920 cleanups in 2020. They have had a total of over 900,000 volunteers and have collected over 2 million kilograms of trash in total. If you wish to donate, start your own event, or volunteer for an event, you can access the page here.

How can we help?

While cleaning up P.P.E. is crucial in helping our oceans, a large part of waste can be reduced by the consumers’ choices. This can be through making a variety of waste-reducing decisions. Using reusable masks is a great way to cut down on waste. Trading in disposable masks for their reusable counterparts may take away the convenience of a one-use item, but a reusable mask drastically cuts down on waste and remains effective if washed properly. Another way you can reduce waste is by lowering the use of plastic gloves. While gloves are essential for health care workers, the World Health Organization says properly washing your hands regularly can better protect the public from COVID-19. If these options are not viable for your situation, the next way you can help is through proper disposal. Consumers should cut the ear loops of disposable masks to reduce risk of animals getting tangled. Finally, place the used product in a sealed bag along with any other covid protectants (gloves, masks, face shields, etc)  and dispose of it once the bag is full. Instead of disposal, a way you can recycle your P.P.E. is by purchasing a TerraCycle Zero Waste Box. TerraCycle offers a variety of P.P.E (and other recycling programs) in which you order a box with instructions on how to properly recycle your P.P.E. and you send it back in return for recycling. This recycling allows for detrimental plastics to be processed and turned into new, recycled plastic products. You may even find some businesses in your area have a community TerraCycle box or a local recycling program for these items, try a quick Google search or join a Zero Waste Facebook group in your area to help find these solutions. These small actions help you to remain an eco-friendly consumer and COVID-19 protected.

Conclusion

Personal protective equipment has played an essential part in keeping us safe during this global pandemic and consumers should be asked to make a choice between the environment and keeping each other healthy. It is possible to have both! There are many ways we can all help, from using reusable masks to cleaning up our oceans: it is always important to keep the environment in mind and spread awareness. Not only can you help make these small choices, but encourage larger organizations or government bodies to make choices that consider the planet in these trying times.