When the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to shelter at home, the one silver-lining that seemed to be was that carbon emissions would likely drop, allowing the earth to find peace in the absence of humanity’s onslaught of environmental abuses. And it did, however temporary it might have been—studies showed an 8.8 percent decrease in global emissions in the first half of 2020, compared to the same time span in 2019. In February, emissions in China even dipped by 25 percent over a four week period. However, this relief didn’t last long.
As lockdown ended and people began emerging from their homes, traveling, and settling back into their routines, carbon emissions began to climb again. Then, the world began noticing yet another layer of environmental concern emanating from the pandemic: pollution from personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and plastic gloves and other single-use plastics.
Masks are now the norm almost everywhere. Some people stick with standard, blue medical masks while others have committed to matching their masks and outfits, establishing a new era of style trends. For the latter, masks have been transformed into fabric accessories that can be washed and reused; by contrast, the blue masks are meant to be disposed of after use and have increasingly become the culprits of debris and pollution during the pandemic.
In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that based on global modeling, an estimated 89 million medical masks, 76 million gloves, and 1.6 million goggles are required monthly by healthcare professionals. A later study in June found that health concerns of the public could increase this number to a monthly worldwide consumption of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves. These numbers are terrifying when we start to consider where all of this equipment has gone.
It’s increasingly well-known that a majority of the plastic floating around our oceans has come from land sources, and PPE can just as easily impact our marine biodiversity when improperly disposed of. In February, OceanAsia found masses of surgical masks on the shores of the remote and uninhabited Soko Islands, washing up in shocking amounts.
Single-use, plastic PPE is often mistaken as food by marine species, who can also become entangled by the strings on masks, affecting mobility and respiration. Unfortunately, single-use plastics like masks can appear to be a tempting jellyfish to species like green sea turtles, who ingest them and starve.
According to OceanAsia, toxins and organic pollutants can adhere to the surface of the plastic as a toxic film that is poisonous if ingested by marine life. Invasive species may also begin to colonize on plastics, leading to the smothering and leaching of nutrients from marine biodiversity. As this plastic breaks down, it turns into microplastics, which have severely damaging effects on the ecosystem especially as it is incorporated into the food web. Humans aren’t immune either—the fish and shellfish we eat often contain these tiny particles of indigestible plastic, which can damage our organs and leach chemicals like BPA and pesticides that can negatively impact our immune systems and other biological functions.
PPE isn’t the only source of pandemic-related plastic pollution, as the increased need for sanitary measures has led to increased use of disposable goods. More people are ordering out instead of dining in, the use of plastic silverware and containers has soared. Concerns of cross-contamination mean coffee shops often hesitate or refuse to fill reusable bottles and mugs, and the only other option is typically a plastic one.
Meanwhile, increased plastic packaging and medical supplies are all putting more pressure on waste management, often leading to malpractice. A study this year by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that improper disposal of just 1 percent of face masks amounts to more than 10 million items weighing 30,000 to 40,000 kg.
Of course, this is not to underestimate the importance of these products in combating the further spread of this virus. While there are ways we can individually work toward sustainable habits—properly disposing of face masks or switching to reusable ones altogether—changes at the institutional level are the most crucial.
Solutions to transform the waste into other useful products are emerging. For example, French start-up Plaxtil is using recovered and sanitized single-use masks to make a plastic-like material that can be molded into any product. Similarly, recycling brand TerraCycle is offering Zero Waste Boxes to other brands like Subaru, who fill up the boxes with PPE and return them to TerraCycle, which cleans, melts, and reshapes the waste into new products.
With solutions and public awareness continuing to surface, there is a glimmer of hope that we can reduce the drastic impacts that COVID-19 has already had on the society and environment. However, with the pandemic still in full-force and the possibility of a second wave on the horizon, it is vital to not only wear a mask but to choose reusable items first, keeping in mind how else we might make a smaller ecological impact on our already suffering environment.