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Masks, Microplastics and Misjudgement: Pandemic Pollution

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

You could be forgiven, with everything that happened during the pandemic to have forgotten to consider the environmental impact of Covid-19. Masks, gloves, shields and gowns were all rapidly produced for medical and personal use in order to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. It perhaps now is time to reflect on the sheer scale of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) detritus that has been left by the global crisis.

The vast amount of plastic involved in making PPE will burden our planet, particularly our oceans for years to come. We are already seeing some of the results and the pandemic is not even over. Plastic masks and face coverings appear to be the biggest problem with billions of the single use items being used monthly around the world. For medical and safety reasons many of these must be discarded after use and will end up in our oceans or burning in landfills. The question is then, how much damage has already been done and is there any alternative?

Starting with the damage, researchers in Nanjing, China, recently calculated that 193 countries have generated more than 8 million tons of pandemic-related plastic waste, a staggering amount. What makes this worse is that advocacy group, OceansAsia estimate that 1.5 billion plastic, single use face masks will end up in our waters each year. With each surgical mask with the potential to release upwards of 16 million microplastics if washed up, the debris from the pandemic poses a real environmental risk for the future. Scientists have predicted that by the end of the century almost all pandemic related plastic waste will end up on either the seabed or on beaches. This will have a devastating impact on marine life, both masks and gloves pose a risk of entanglement, entrapment and ingestion leading to the immediate or slow death of many animals. Interestingly it is estimated that only 7.6% of excess PPE waste came from individual use, with 87.4% coming from hospitals. This is not a criticism of hospitals, there are rules and guidelines on disposing of medical waste, especially in a pandemic. The World Health Organisation guidance states that in hospitals, “reprocessing of single-use PPE items should be considered an extraordinary measure to be considered only when there would otherwise be a shortage of available PPE to perform tasks safely in the health care setting.” It also isn’t necessarily the burden for individuals to bare but instead a problem that governments and big industries need to solve, and fast. In terms of damage limitation, alternatives to the way we manufacture, use, and dispose of PPE must be found. We don’t know how long the need to use and wear PPE will remain or if another situation will arise in the near future which requires huge amounts of PPE.

Work is beginning in the search for alternative methods of producing or recycling PPE. Discarded face masks could be melted down and recycled to combat the plastic pollution resulting from the pandemic. Welsh company, Thermal Compaction Group are making machines that recycle plastic medical waste that can be sold to hospitals to be used on site. TCG told the BBC that the firm heats single-use masks, gowns and curtains to 300C, sterilising all pathogens, and eventually turning the waste plastic into plastic bricks which can be used to make a multitude of products. If adopted nationwide by the NHS then a significant amount of waste PPE will be diverted away from landfills and oceans and instead reintegrated into a circular economy. The aim of keeping plastic products in a circular loop for as long as possible, stops pollution and lessens the need to manufacture new plastics. There must be alternatives to non-biodegradable masks, it's just whether there was the means at the time of the pandemic hitting to test them and rapidly produce them. The environment was the last thing on people’s minds. For now, heads of state and industry must continue to investigate and develop ways to recycle waste PPE. Looking ahead, they must find a way to make PPE that is biodegradable.

As for what the individual can do, the main way you can help is to be conscious of what you are using and disposing of. For personal and home use the plastic, disposable single-use masks aren’t your only option. The UK government and the World Health Organisation advise that unless you fall into a high-risk group, you can use washable, reusable masks or face coverings. There are many washable, cotton masks out there that are better for the environment and can be used time and time again. Even better if you can make your own or find a retailer selling sustainable masks. As for gloves, guidance actually states that it is safer to not wear gloves and instead wash your hands regularly and thoroughly. Gloves can actually pick up and hold bacteria much like your hands but gloves are harder to wash. Ultimately though the responsibility lies with those in power who can change the way we use plastics, make medical equipment and reuse PPE. The immense need for PPE during an unprecedented pandemic may have caused irreparable damage from its resulting pollution, now people in power must learn from this and be prepared in the future. This can’t happen again.


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