Before the 2020 pandemic, gutter trash mostly consisted of straws, shreds of personal-sized chip bags, and the occasional unidentifiable scrap. Since masks became everyday COVID-19 fashion, however, disposable masks are showing up — and not just on people’s faces. They’re blowing onto lawns and across parks, washing ashore on beaches and riverbanks, and spilling onto roads and parking lots. Perhaps if the world were focusing on eco-friendly face masks, it might be less of a concern. Still, pollution from personal protective equipment (PPE) is becoming a global concern.
Let’s take a look at the result of improperly disposed of PPE and the environmental concerns it raises. Then, let’s talk about what can be done to protect ourselves and the environment as we adjust to our future in the coronavirus era.
A Few Fast Facts About Pollution and PPE
Personal protective equipment (PPE) includes more than masks. Gowns, gloves, filters, face shields, goggles, and anything else worn to protect people from virus transmission is considered PPE. While these items weren’t even on most people’s radars before March 2020, awareness of how to properly manufacture, use and dispose of them is more important than ever.
For a better idea of the challenges ahead, take a look at these quick pandemic PPE facts:
- The UNTCAD estimates that global PPE sales will rise to $166 billion in 2020, a significant increase from $800 million in 2019.
- It’s further estimated that 75% of pandemic-related waste will end up in landfills or washing into waterways and oceans.
- At the United Nations Conference On Trade And Development (UNCTAD), the director of international trade, Pamela Coke-Hamilton, was quoted as saying, "Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak. The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”
- In a letter to French president Emmanuel Macron, French politician of the Côte d’Azur region, Éric Pauge, wrote, “with a lifespan of 450 years, disposable masks are an ecological time bomb given their lasting environmental consequences for our planet.”
- In an interview with CNN, David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, indicated that PPE is not recyclable or biodegradable. It can’t be recycled and needs to be treated as waste.
How You Can Be Part of the Solution: Eco-Friendly Face Masks and More
While PPE waste is a growing global concern, there’s plenty you can do at the individual and community levels to help protect yourself and the environment.
Dispose of Masks Correctly
Sometimes disposable masks are a necessity. For example, some medical facilities require that patients wear the surgical masks handed to them upon entry rather than their own reusable masks. Should this occur, be sure to dispose of single-use surgical masks and other PPE correctly. They should be placed in a tightly secured garbage bag and then put out with the regular trash for collection.
Choose the Right Eco-friendly Face Masks
Selecting a reusable mask may make perfect sense, but it’s also crucial that you choose the right reusable mask. It should fit snugly and securely over the nose and under the chin to minimize expelled air and the inhalation of unfiltered air. Choose a mask with three layers. The outermost layer should repel water. The inner layer should wick moisture away from the nose and mouth. And there should be a tightly woven filter layer in the middle to help protect against viral transmission.
Pro tip: You might also choose a mask with Nano-Silver Technology, which has antimicrobial properties, to provide added protection against bacteria and allergens.
Host a Clean-up Event
Gather friends — and you might even consider partnering with an environmentally friendly nonprofit — to organize a clean-up event. Choose a local riverbank, reservoir or beach that has an increasing build-up of waste. Be sure to mandate that everyone wear their reusable masks, bring gloves, and maintain social distancing. Plus, don’t forget to dispose of all discarded PPE waste properly. Make it a global clean-up by encouraging people you know to do a local clean-up in their area on the same day.
Participate in Citizen Science
You might even do a little citizen science while you’re picking up litter during your afternoon dog walk or participating in a local clean-up. Count the volume and types of PPE collected as well as the general location. Then email the data to Mark Benfield, a zooplankton ecologist and professor in the oceanography and coastal sciences department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to spread the word, whether it’s a clean-up, citizen science, or both. Consider hosting a global clean-up by encouraging people you know to do a local clean-up in their location on the same day. Encourage others who participate to be safe, take pictures, and collect data and send it in to be counted.
PPE isn’t something people think of as plastic waste. However, masks, gloves, and wipes are not recyclable. While they do break down into microscopic pieces with enough UV light, they don’t go away, and may pollute important waterways, often ending up in the ocean.
There is plenty everyone can do to own their role in preventing pollution and protecting the environment while protecting themselves. These are just a few ideas anyone can use to do their part. Share your ideas with Boomer Naturals and share your projects on social media to help spread the word.