Unmasking Pandemic Pollution: The Environmental Toll of PPE
Throughout the pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a vital part in shielding us from spreading and contracting the coronavirus. The typical person is about 70% less likely to become infected with the virus if they wear any kind of face covering outside, and the transmission rate declines even more when wearing surgical masks or other single-use, medical grade masks. These masks are most effective since they contain plastic and have multiple layers, which limit exposure to respiratory droplets. The effectiveness of such masks has prevented tens of thousands of deaths and even more cases; yet, they are not without consequences. A fairly unrecognized outcome of our response to the pandemic is the amount of plastic waste masks and other supplies (such as gloves, protective packaging, or face shields) has generated. Because these materials are everyday necessities, it’s difficult to imagine how detrimental they can be.
So, what’s the problem with plastic? In a typical year, the average American uses 220 pounds of it. Worldwide, this already creates an exorbitant amount of plastic waste, 40% of which ends up in the natural world, where it can irreversibly damage ecosystems, wildlife, and humans. Some of the effects of plastics left in the environment include poisoning or choking animals who mistake it as food, polluting water, soil, and air with toxins or micro-plastics, and, worse of all, never decomposing or degrading. A lot of plastics last forever, and since they’re being produced at such a high rate, it’s predicted that by 2050, the “mass of plastic in the world’s oceans will exceed the mass of all the fish that live there.” Even plastics that do break down or degrade in some capacity take a very long time to do so, at least 450 years. A seemingly simple solution to this problem is to recycle more, yet this becomes tricky. First of all, it’s impossible to send all plastics to recycling centers because these centers simply can’t handle the scale of plastic waste; this is also because it takes so much time to separate plastics into different categories, as different types can’t be mixed together when recycled. In fact, only about 9% of plastics are able to be properly recycled. Here is a graphic that is helpful if you don’t know what you should or shouldn’t recycle (it’s important to check the little triangle with a number inside, which is present on all single-use plastics):
However, when it comes to single-use masks, unfortunately, they’re not recyclable. The problem with disposable PPE is that surgical or K-N95 masks contain propylene, polyester, polycarbonate, and/or polyethylene, which allow for pathogens to be kept out, but are detrimental to the recycling process. In addition, they’re only supposed to be used once to decrease the chance of contamination, so it’s recommended that they are disposed of. One step that can be useful to harm reduction is to make sure the ear loops are cut off, since these loops are likely to entangle and harm wildlife. However, there isn’t much more we can do in this moment to stop the detrimental effects of masks on the environment. It’s estimated that by September 2021, 2.32 trillion masks will have been used worldwide, and we’re already seeing them turn up all over the world in natural environments.
Soon enough, masks will hopefully become a thing of the past. Until then, however, finding scalable solutions to the problem of PPE waste could also help solve the decades-long issue of reusing plastic. One idea was proposed by French startup Plaxtil, a company which removes the metal bar from masks, grinds them, decontaminates them, and then transforms them into Plaxtil, a material “injected into an injection press to obtain objects of protection against COVID-19: mask fasteners, door openers, protective visors, etc.” Plaxtil has recycled over 100,000 masks already, which is just their pilot run. Another idea, developed at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, is to produce masks from “waste plant material” like sugar cane, which would be biodegradable. Until these kinds of breakthrough products become mainstream, the best solution is to social distance and stay home as much as possible to prevent the spread of the virus. When it is necessary to go outside, use multiple masks (one cloth and one disposable mask), or use multiple washable, cloth masks with disposable filters. And of course, make sure to cut off the ear loops and dispose of these (and all of your recyclable or non-recyclable waste) properly!
PPE4ALL would like to spark more conversation on the long-term effects of the life-saving materials we supply, and work towards finding solutions for more sustainable PPE. If you’d like to help us achieve our goals, please consider learning more about us or contributing to our cause at https://www.ppe4all.net/.