Written by Trisann Logan
Cellphones, keys, wallets before Covid-19. These were all the essentials for many people. Now, thanks to the pandemic, there’s a new essential item: our masks. Mask-wearing has now become a routine for all of us (we hope). In addition, healthcare workers are using masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, face shields, surgical hats, shoe covers, goggles and gowns, at much higher rates.
Though PPEs are essential in controlling the spread of COVID-19, how we dispose of these single-use, life-saving items pose a threat to our environment.
Single-use face masks and gloves, for example, have been polluting oceans and beaches around the globe. OceansAsia, a Hong Kong-based marine conservation organisation, did a survey of marine debris on Hong Kong’s uninhabited Soko Islands and found dozens of disposable masks on these islands. They found about 70 masks on a 100-metre beach, with another 30 masks washing ashore a week later.
The UK’s Marine Conservation Society also found face masks and disposable gloves on almost a quarter of Scottish beaches during their beach clean-up and litter survey in September 2020. These items, called Covid-waste, have entered waste streams at an unprecedented level.
In February 2020, China produced 116 million single-use face masks per day, about 16 times the normal daily quantity. During the peak of Wuhan’s COVID-19 outbreak, hospitals in the city produced more than 6 times more single-use plastic-based medical waste (namely masks, gowns and gloves) per day than they did before the pandemic.
Unfortunately, not all of this COVID waste is properly disposed of, as littering and solid waste management systems have been overran globally. Single-use masks take around 450 years to disintegrate and these become secondary microplastics that make their way up the food chain making the potential for harm much greater.
How does this affects marine life?
PPE on beaches and in oceans also threatens marine life. Marine animals may become entangled or entrapped in masks, gloves and other COVID-waste. If entangled, marine animals can suffer from impaired mobility, starvation, suffocation, infection, limb amputation, and even death.
Marine animals such as seabirds and sea turtles may also mistake PPE for food and ingest it, which can poison them and cause death. Even if PPE ingestion does not kill them, marine animals can become weak because of the toxins in these plastics, making them more vulnerable to other threats.
The toxins in plastics can also negatively affect the reproduction and development of young marine animals. In addition, marine animals may starve after ingesting plastics since they impede internal organ function and fill their stomachs, causing them to eat less.
Single use PPEs are most effective at preventing infections where these risks exist. The question therefore becomes, how do we continue to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, while also protecting our oceans and wildlife? Thankfully, some organizations have already come up with innovative ways to tackle plastic PPE pollution.
One such company, Plaxtil, a French startup, has found a way to recycle single-use face masks by grinding them down and mixing them with a binding material creating Plaxtil, which is used in industry and molded like normal plastic. Plaxtil’s innovation has opened the door for new possibilities as single-use face masks cannot be recycled via regular recycling channels. However, if Plaxtil’s method of recycling masks is replicated globally, we could see a notable reduction in plastic PPE pollution. There are a number of other companies working to address the issue of Covid waste in our environment.
The issue of Covid-19 waste can be as easily solved as it was created by paying attention to choices as consumers. For example, We can start by using reusable face masks unless the situation requires the use of surgical or N-95 masks. By washing and/or sanitizing our hands frequently, we eliminate the need for disposable gloves.
We must always ensure that our PPEs are properly disposed of. Where they exist and their use is acceptable, we can opt to use biodegradable PPEs and of course, be sure to dispose of them properly. We can make environmentally conscious choices as individuals and as a collective, so that this pandemic does not set back the fight for clean oceans.