If you take a walk these days, you’re likely to see most of the people you pass wearing masks. You’re probably also likely to come across one or two discarded masks along the side of the road. You’ll still find the occasional empty Lays packet,– and if you’re unlucky, a condom– on your route, but now they’ll probably be accompanied by a latex glove. This once rare form of litter is increasingly starting pop up around the world, prompting the question:
What happens to our used PPE?
If your walking route is in the city, like mine, the fact that masks are turning up along the road may not come as a surprise. There are millions of people in close proximity in the middle of a pandemic. Surely that would leave evidence in the form of poorly disposed trash? That in itself is problematic, but it isn’t only in densely populated areas that our new mask use is leaving behind traces.
According to a report from a conservation group called OceansAsia, hundreds of masks have been washing up on uninhabited islands a few nautical miles from Hong Kong.
“We hadn’t noticed this many masks before in such a remote location,” DW quotes Gary Stokes, from OceansAsia. He suspects these particular masks came from nearby China or from Hong Kong. “When we found them, it only had been six to eight weeks since people had started using these masks,” he said.
The environmental impact of discarded PPE
When the pandemic started, many people were claiming that it was having a positive impact on the environment. Fake news stories began circulating that dolphins had “returned to the canals of Venice”. The reality, though, is that for every environmental step we’ve taken forward during this pandemic, we’ve also taken one step back. Many of the gloves and face masks we throw in the trash are finding their way into nature, where they have seriously negative impacts.
“[In Hong Kong waters,] we’ve got pink dolphins and green turtles coming through this place,” DW quotes Stokes. “A recently published study showed that when plastic is left in the water long enough and algae and bacteria grow on it, it actually smells like food to turtles.”
Lina Zeldovich, writing for JStor Daily, quotes John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace: “Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example,” Hocevar told CNN. This can be a dangerous choking hazard for the hungry marine animals. Not to mention, “The straps on masks can present entangling hazards.”
We already have 5-13 million tons of plastic washing into the ocean, and the addition of all the PPE we’ve been using is no small thing.
“We’re finding dozens of masks, even visors,” Joe Williams, a senior aquarist at the Sea Life aquarium in Brighton, told EuroNews.
“We’ve found birds with their gullets stuffed full of latex gloves, a nest of dead chicks — crabs tangled up in face masks — it’s everywhere.”
This is a whole new source of single-use plastics that we didn’t have before this year. Clearly, this pandemic is starting to take its toll not only on our psyche and on our physical health, but on our environments as well.
Why not just recycle?
The problem with much of the PPE we use is that it’s intended for single-use. This means that we use it once before discarding it. Those living in developing countries are already aware that often you have to jump through a lot of hoops to recycle anything, because on a national scale it’s just not done. Even in countries with good recycling plans, the recycling of PPE seems to pose a few problems. Joan Marc Simon, executive director of Zero Waste Europe, a Brussels-based NGO points out that in their case, as gloves aren’t considered packaging, they can’t be put into household recycling bins.
Even the recycling process has its issues. Most places refuse to accept PPE and recommend it be thrown in the trash, as chemical additives used to produce things like latex gloves can harm the environment when they decompose.
Furthermore, According to Carly Fletcher writing for The Conversation, “In England, the National Health Service labels waste as either “infectious” (contaminated with bodily fluids), “offensive” (contaminated but not infectious) or “municipal” (similar to household waste). Used PPE is generally labelled as infectious or offensive, which means disposal needs to prevent the transmission of disease to the wider population.”
This waste, writes Fletcher, if it doesn’t find its way to the ocean, then ends up being incinerated in landfills – which in itself is controversial. It’s clear that where possible we need to think sustainably about how we’re protecting ourselves. That means regular hand washing instead of gloves, and cloth masks that can be washed in between uses.
Why does this matter?
Just because we’re on land, doesn’t mean the health of the oceans doesn’t affect us. We need to learn from this pandemic, because experts are frequently emphasising that it won’t be the last one we see. If we can’t find a way to lessen the damage we cause trying to fight off this invisible enemy, we may have an even harder time dealing with the next one.
Simon believes we shouldn’t have to choose between protecting our environment and protecting public health.
“That’s currently what’s happening,” he told DW. “In the future we need to make sure we’re ready for pandemics like this and that we’re ready to deal with them in an environmental way; it doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other.”
So, while the Essential Millennial absolutely advocates the wearing of masks, we also ask our readers to think sustainably about how they protect themselves in this difficult time. Wear a re-useable cloth mask if you need to go out – but of course, the most effective way to keep yourself safe is just to stay home.