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Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a literal lifesaver during the coronavirus pandemic. But while this all-important household item has gone a long way to stemming the spread of COVID-19, a new threat has arisen in the form of excessive plastic waste.

With PPE serving such an important role in the fight against the virus, it would be foolish to suggest an outright reduction in usage. The trick heading forwards is understanding how to properly manage and sustain the equipment we’re wearing.

In this guide, we’ll look to do just that. With a focus on the current impact of PPE on the world, we’ll assess how you can responsibly manage your wastage, as well as the safest ways to dispose of the equipment you have used.

Dirty face mask being picked up by person wearing protective gloves

Despite doing so much good on a person-to-person basis, PPE is unfortunately not the best for the world around us. Let’s explore how much of an impact the sudden influx of plastic has had on the environment.

PPE and coronavirus

Given the sudden and rapid nature of the original outbreak of COVID-19, it was perhaps no surprise that the manufacturing of PPE struggled. Despite that, there were still billions of units produced across the world.

In the UK alone, the NHS was using PPE at an alarming rate, with as many as 748 million items used in hospitals in just a 53-day period at the beginning of the pandemic.

That equated to 14 million pieces of equipment needing to be thrown away on a daily basis.

Doctor putting on protective gloves
When broken down further, the numbers showed:
Face mask
132 million
masks being used
145 million
aprons worn
1.2 million
gowns worn
470 million
gloves worn

In order to accommodate this sudden influx of PPE, the government was forced to enact a series of measures which would speed up the process of getting equipment where it was needed most – into hospitals and healthcare centres. These included moves like:

  • Allowing the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities to fast track product safety assessment processes
  • Letting PPE that lacked a European CE safety mark on the market (as long as they still met essential safety requirements)
  • Ordering a public call for any companies who could provide PPE as part of their day-to-day work

Source: MAG Online Library

And while these drastic measures were useful in helping to fight the spread of the virus, the impact on the world around us was definitely not at the forefront of our minds.

Hospital workers receiving boxes of PPE equipment

By the end of 2020, in England alone a whopping 6.76bn items of PPE had been distributed.

This was up by nearly three times the usual figure, which sat at 2.43bn in 2019. But where is all this excess PPE going once it’s no longer usable?

Short-term PPE damage to the environment

The sudden influx of so much PPE unsurprisingly had a huge impact on nature across the world. With people unprepared for the management of this scale of plastic, drastic increases in the amount of waste in the natural world has been identified across the globe.

Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have started, experienced as much as a 370% rise in the amount of medical waste being produced.

Worker wearing PPE face coverings

The Spanish region of Catalonia showed similar figures, with an increase of 350% by the end of April 2020 alone.

In just one day (February 24 2020), Wuhan was able to tear through as much as 200 tonnes of medical waste.

That number accounted for nearly four times as much as the city’s only facility capable of disposing of such waste. These excess levels of wastage are far from an isolated issue. Jordan’s King Abdullah University Hospital (KAUH) highlighted how the amount of PPE being thrown away continued to steadily rise at the height of the pandemic. Their numbers showed:

Medical waste in kg during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Looking closer to home, it’s really easy to see how this excess wastage translates. British beaches were one of the hardest hit areas. In November of 2020 up to a third of them were littered with discarded PPE.

While the regular offenders like plastic bottles and other types of drinks containers were found in abundance:

Dirty, used face mask found on the floor

Source To Sea Litter Quest found that as much as 69% of all discarded waste found on British beaches was in fact some kind of PPE.

With figures the world over emphasising the potential damage to the world around us, it will only be in the coming years that we truly discover just how harmful this influx has been.

Long-term PPE damage on the environment

Given how much plastic and other non-degradable materials have found their way into the environment, there are bound to be a variety of long-term issues which we’ll have to come to terms with over the next few years.

With no clear end in sight for the regular wearing of face masks, the UK could experience an onslaught of medical wastage the likes of which it would never have dealt with before.

It is estimated that if every person wears a single-use face mask every day for a year, as much as 66,000 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic waste could be thrown away.

Face mask laying on grass

On a top-level, this would have drastic long-term impacts on a number of environmental factors, such as:

On a top-level, this would have drastic long-term impacts on a number of environmental factors, such as:
Marine ecosystems
Damage to marine ecosystems
On-land Ecosystems
Damage to natural on-land ecosystems
Pollution of natural resources
Contamination and pollution of natural resources
Ingestion of wastage by wildlife

When looking at the potential damage more closely, the following issues are likely to prove an ongoing concern to people and wildlife everywhere:

Degradation into rivers and sediment

The polymers and polyethylene plastics which are commonly used in the creation of PPE often degrade into smaller pieces of microplastic. These will commonly enter and contaminate rivers and oceans, while also posing a threat to sediment levels on farmyards and other industrial landscapes.

Sewage systems blocked

This can be a particular problem in developing countries, who experience from crowding and overpopulation in their larger cities and towns. This is a common side effect of plastic waste of any kind being littered in open terrestrial (on land) or aquatic environments of any kind.

A threat to biodiversity

Any excess wastage in a natural environment always runs the risk of being ingested or caught up on wildlife. This is not just an issue with larger items, but can also become a factor when micro and nano-sized particles are ingested. These are able to cause internal abrasions and even blockages.

Breeding grounds for some diseases

In an ironic twist, lingering PPE could even serve as the perfect hosting ground for the creation and spread of further disease. Zoonotic diseases are often spread in this way – which can, over time, mutate and begin to harm humans as well as animals.

The world was already in the midst of a pollution crisis before the outbreak of COVID-19.

Water bottle littered by the sea

As much as five trillion pieces of plastic debris were estimated to be found in the world’s oceans, while anywhere from 4.8-12.7m tonnes of plastic waste entered the marine environment as far back as 2010.

Given what has been a rapid increase in the amount of PPE suddenly hitting the global ecosystem, it’s likely the environmental impact of coronavirus will be felt for decades to come.

While every continent has contributed to PPE use and wastage in some way, there has definitely been some more responsible for the plastic influx than others. And whether you agree with the extra levels of caution, or cast a discerning eye over the amount of plastic being used in production, it’s hard to overlook Asia as the primary force in PPE usage.

Asia is miles ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to the amount of face masks used on a daily basis, with an estimated 1.86bn masks used across the continent on a daily basis. This is more than four times as many as any other region of the globe, with the numbers showing:

0 445m 411.8m 380.4m 244.3m 21.6m 100 200 300 400 500 Masks used a day (million) Oceania North America South America Africa Europe

Source: Science Direct

It’s perhaps no surprise then that the 10 countries generating the highest levels of waste are primarily made up of nations from within Asia. The same study estimated the following figures for daily national face mask wastage:

255075100125Tonnes of plastic waste (million)China0IndiaUSAIndonediaPakistanBrazilNigeriaBangladeshRussiaMexico 107.9m 24.8m 20.5m 16.5m 15.9m 15.4m 12.4m 10.9m 9.6m 103.5m

But while it would be easy to point the finger at these countries, it’s also important to remember that population size also plays a huge role in levels of pollutant wastage. In fact, when it comes to the chief source of plastic waste in proportion to population, of the countries listed here only the USA, Brazil and Russia feature again.

The numbers showed the citizens which produced the most global waste across the world to be:

255075100125Kg of waste per person, per yearUSA0UKSouth KoreaGermanyThailandMalaysiaArgentinaRussiaItalyBrazil 105kg 99kg 88kg 81kg 70kg 67kg 61kg 59kg 56kg 52kg

Source: The Guardian

It’s important to remember that it’s not a bad thing to be using PPE – in fact, quite the opposite. What matters is what we’re doing as a global society to ensure that we efficiently and safely dispose of it after we’re done protecting ourselves.

Wider plastic waste and the pandemic

While PPE has been at the forefront of this sudden rise in waste, it’s not the only cause for concern. A variety of factors have combined to cause major fluctuations across the market as a whole.

The sudden need for single-use PPE, takeaway dishes for curbside pickups, bubble wrap for the transportation of online shopping and numerous other COVID-related factors has directly resulted in a surge in plastic production.

This has directly contributed to a price war between recyclable plastic and “new plastic” – the latter of which is far more damaging for the environment, but also anywhere from 83-93% cheaper to produce

Unsurprisingly, it’s this material which most companies have turned to in order to meet these exceptionally high pandemic-driven demands. A recent report found that a rise in new plastic usage has seen recycling rates drastically drop the world over.

They found that the sudden influx of single-use new plastic resulted in far fewer materials being recycled, with the numbers showing:

Down Arrow
drop in the United States
Down Arrow
drop in Asia
Down Arrow
drop in Europe

In even more damning news, the oil industry has pledged as much as $400 billion to the production of new plastic, but just $2 billion (just 0.5% of that figure) to reducing the amount of plastic waste across the world.

Meanwhile, the UN Environment Programme looked into the areas where they feel this new plastic waste is likely to increase as a result of the pandemic. Heading forwards, they predict the following surges in different sectors:

Household & Leisure4% Agricultrure3% Electronics6% Automotive industry10% Medical Waste17% Building & Construction20% Packaging40%

And numbers are startling all across the world. Plastic packaging has seen a huge increase in Thailand, shooting up by 15% from 5,500 tonnes of production a day to 6,300. This has largely been as a result of a rise in the demand for food to be delivered door-to-door.

Elsewhere, in the tiny nation of Singapore, in just a two-month circuit-breaker period a whopping 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste was generated. This was again a result of takeaway meals.

Fast food in paper and plastic wrappings

The problem for governments across the world has been the sudden and unpredictable nature of the pandemic’s impact. In Wales, for example, initial plans had been for there to be zero waste in landfills by 2050, with as much as 70% of all rubbish being recycled.

Unfortunately, the pandemic resulted in the pausing of some schemes which were focused around sustainability. One of the most infamous examples came when Starbucks banned reusable cups to help stop the spread of the virus.

Coffee cups thrown away

With up to 2.5 billion coffee cups being thrown away each year before the pandemic, those numbers could be even more extreme after coronavirus.

Worker putting on protective gloves

The sheer scale of PPE wastage we’ve looked at might be a little demoralising for some. But don’t worry – there are steps everyone can take to make the impact of PPE on the world that little bit less extreme. Read on for advice on how to responsibly dispose of any wastage.

PPE recycling guidance – how to recycle single-use items

One of the biggest challenges people face when trying to be responsible is understanding what can and can’t be recycled. In the case of most single-use PPE, it’s highly advised not to try and recycle your used products. This extends to:

Disposable face masks
Disposable face masks
Paper towels, tissues and napkins
Paper towels, tissues and napkins
Disinfecting wipes
Disinfecting wipes

These pieces of equipment are often flimsy, meaning they tend to clog machinery at recycling plants. What’s more, they also carry the risk of spreading the disease – completely negating their original purpose.

While that might all sound like doom and gloom, there are alternatives which give you the chance to dispose of single-use items without damaging the environment. For example, programs like the Zero Waste Box have been set up to collect, clean, and then repurpose PPE which would have otherwise found its way to landfills, beaches or been incinerated.

These systems allow gloves, face masks and other forms of safety equipment to be recycled, so long as they are made from materials such as vinyl, latex and nitrile. Fabrics and paper materials cannot be taken (but the former are washable, and therefore reusable).

Plaxtil, a French company who specialise in waste and textile recycling, have also championed a new method for using spoiled PPE sustainably. They follow an intricate process to ensure what they’re doing is both safe and sustainable:

  • Collect used PPE from medical centres and hospitals.
  • Quarantine the PPE for four days to allow any virus particles to die.
  • The PPE is ground down into small pieces and exposed to ultraviolet light to guarantee no contamination.
  • The pieces are mixed with a binding agent.
  • The result can be moulded into any shape to be used again.

Fittingly, Plaxtil are currently using the process to create further PPE for medical professionals.

How to safely dispose of PPE used during COVID-19

If you’ve been using PPE with the express purpose of protecting yourself from COVID-19, there are special ways to dispose of your equipment. With the threat of accidentally spreading the virus a real possibility, be sure to follow this specific set of guidelines to reduce your risk of contaminating yourself, or others:

  • Place any PPE you’ve used in a plastic bag and seal it tightly.
  • Place this bag inside of another bag, and again tie it as tight as possible.
  • Keep this bag in a safe place for up to 72 hours.
  • Send it to your local waste incineration centre for disposal.

It’s also important to remember to keep any waste, however well contained, away from children, outside of communal areas and off the streets (in case it’s taken by public waste collectors).

Remember to try and dispose of waste in this manner as a last resort. Consider all your options first, and try to see if it’s possible to recycle your PPE with the help of one of the systems we mentioned in the previous section.

Advice for reducing the amount of PPE wastage

While wearing PPE is a must in a lot of situations during the pandemic, that doesn’t mean you can’t also be sensible with your usage. Keep these tips in mind if you’re thinking about trying to reduce the amount of PPE you’re throwing away:

Avoid single-use as much as possible

By reducing the amount of single-use PPE items you’re utilising every day, you’ll instantly go a long way towards being more sustainable. While this can’t be avoided with the likes of wipes and towels, you will be able to buy more industrial masks and gloves which can be washed and then used again.

Buy in bulk

For things like sanitiser and paper towels, it sometimes makes sense to buy your items in bulk. This allows you to reduce the amount of smaller plastic containers you need, while potentially also saving you a little money in the process. It’s win-win.

Always check recycling options first

Before you buy anything, be sure to check and see if the item in question is able to be recycled. While this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to avoid a purchase, it’s something which might have a big influence on your eventual decision.

Approach all aspects of life more sustainably

By taking a more wide scale approach to sustainability in all areas of your life, you’ll make it easier to think about using PPE in a more efficient way.

If you follow these steps you’ll have a significantly lower impact on the levels of plastic waste being pumped into the environment. As we’ve seen, in the UK alone, the average person accounts for 99kg of waste a year. Following this guidance will see you take active strides to reduce that number.

Colourful face masks

We’ve covered a lot of information around safely and sustainably recycling your PPE. But if you still want to find out more, be sure to check out this list of useful secondary sources.