a hand holding up a disposable face mask at the beach

In March, when the whole world came to a halt, for a moment it seemed like COVID-19 was going to have somewhat of a positive effect, at least on the environment. Pictures flooded the internet of Venice experiencing clean canals, cities with clear skies and airports being virtually empty

But now, the world is back with an environmental crisis on our hands. 

What’s happening?

With the spread of COVID-19, the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) has skyrocketed in 2020. The US alone has estimated that there will be 3.5 billion medical grade masks required in the first year of the pandemic. The UK has already distributed 1 billion items of PPE.

Though this is crucial to the health and safety of citizens worldwide, especially frontline workers, it has contributed to large disposal of single-use items, namely masks, gloves and gowns.

But how bad is it really?

The excessive use of plastics is one of the largest environmental concerns here in the US. The United States represents 4% of the world’s population yet it produces 12% of the world’s solid waste. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that the US produced 262 tons of waste of which 13% was plastics. Even the recycling rate of plastics fell to 8.4% last year, clearly establishing this as an immediate priority. 

The issue isn’t just local. It is a huge priority overseas with many global organizations taking the first steps towards a cleaner future. The US seems to be lagging behind in its progress, though. Just last year at a UN conference in Nairobi, the US was accused of blocking global action against plastic pollution despite their global commitments. President Donald Trump is especially a huge supporter of plastics, even though big conglomerates are attempting to run more green enterprises.

Climate change is a very status quo issue despite the image of a post-apocalyptic future it tends to conjure. A senior analyst at the global risk consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft told The Guardian that “We have enough plastics in circulation to really cause disruption of marine food webs, which is already in process. I think what we need to be working towards is almost a zero-material-footprint kind of society.” This year, though, the US has only taken steps in the opposite direction.

pile of surgical masks

Environmental impact of PPE

COVID-19 initially led the world to have a somewhat positive output with the largest annual fall in carbon dioxide emissions predicted to take place since people are traveling less and much of big industry has cut its spending. However, these positive effects were short-lived after it was found that use of this PPE has begun to exacerbate the massive global problem of climate change.

With most equipment made of plastic, such as single-use masks being made of polypropylene, it is no secret that PPE is creating waste-related environmental impacts worldwide. Images have already begun to surface of birds with their feet being caught in mask straps and gloves which have been floating in the oceans.

In the US, this has become even worse as some places have halted their recycling programs. Without proper disposal, the US risks offshoring more of our garbage globally and circulating post-consumer plastic waste.

In China, where the crisis has already peaked, the Wuhan municipal government is set to build a medical waste disposal facility to process existing waste from the pandemic outbreak and also help prevent pollution incidents. 

A French non-profit organization, Opération Mer Propre, which regularly picks up litter along the French coast, began voicing their concerns in May after they noticed hand sanitizer bottles, masks, and gloves beneath the Mediterranean sea waves. Their director of operations remarked that because the French government had given out 2 billion disposable masks, there was the risk that there would be more masks than jellyfish in the ocean.

The problem is simple: if we don’t actively work towards finding cleaner solutions in our pandemic recovery process, the whole world is bound to suffer excess pollution and climate consequences.

What can we do?

The good news is, not all hope is lost! Despite all of these environmental concerns surrounding the use of personal protective equipment, there are some very easy changes that can help make your lifestyle more eco-friendly.

hands holding a reusable cloth facemask

1. Opt for reusable masks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now recommended that people wear masks whenever going to areas with high population density or those areas where social distancing cannot be maintained. However, a reusable mask provides an eco-friendly alternative to the disposable masks which are polluting the environment. With tutorials filling the internet over the past few months and some designs making it into the latest fashion trends, cloth masks are easy to make and help be eco-friendly. Plus, they are usually more cost-effective too! 

2. Care for your mask.

To ensure your mask lasts long, make sure you are appropriately washing your masks and have a few on standby so that you are able to wear a clean one on a daily basis. It ensures your safety and also helps prevent excess wear and tear in your mask. The CDC recommends that masks be “washed routinely depending on the frequency of use” which tends to mean it should be washed after each use.

3. Try using a face shield. 

When worn with a cloth face mask, a face shield has the ability to provide an extra layer of protection against COVID-19. Because these are made of plastic and can easily be wiped down after each use, they reduce waste and pollution and keep the environment healthy. 

4. Cut straps of masks before disposal.

In some instances, such as when going to a medical facility, wearing a disposable mask is unavoidable. Though this will still create waste, advocates are asking people to cut off the side straps before disposing of them. This ensures that small birds and other wildlife do not get tangled in them and helps protect wildlife.

When each of us pitches in to take these small steps, we can help ensure that as the world heads towards COVID-19 recovery, the environment recovers, too.