The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • The PPE Dilemma: Protecting Populations without Producing Pollution

  • November 16th, 2020 — by Jenna Santacroce — Category: COVID-19

  • It’s not news that COVID-19 has brought about a new “normal.” We've become accustomed to video call etiquette, practice social distancing in restaurants, and have developed an increased dependence on personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face coverings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages every American to wear face masks when leaving their home. This guidance implicitly entrusts roughly 330 million Americans to responsibly dispose of their PPE properly. The same expectations apply worldwide, and unfortunately, not everyone complies. By protecting ourselves, we are endangering our planet. Researchers in Norway analyzed how the increased production and consumption of PPE during the pandemic put a strain on waste management systems worldwide. Especially—but not exclusively—in developing nations, this influx of PPE is not disposed of properly due to inadequate waste management infrastructure. Other formal studies across the globe discovered that the mismanaged PPE, especially face coverings, are often found most prominently in oceans or on shorelines.

    Natural environments are already experiencing the consequences of plastic pollution in our oceans on a global scale. Its most immediate consequences include coastal unsightliness and threats to marine life. Also, ocean pollution can lead to plastic entering the human food chain. Large debris degrades and forms microplastics that absorb toxic chemicals in the water. Small aquatic organisms consume these toxic microplastics, which then accumulate in the tissue of the larger fish that consume the small aquatic organisms, including seafood species commonly eaten by humans.

    PPE pollution contributes to the ocean pollution crisis. A non-governmental organization in Asia called Oceans Asia conducted a plastics research environmental study which discovered an increasing amount of washed-up masks on the Soko Islands off the coast of Hong Kong. Another study in Columbia showed that nonwoven synthetic textiles, the same materials that make up most single-use masks, were the predominant origin of microplastic microfibers found in the water and sediment samples of the Magdalena River.

    The very visible PPE pollution problem is difficult to ignore and, to the environment’s benefit, many countries are not. Poland conducted a waste management study which examined pollution issues from local governments, waste collection companies, and individual citizens. The results of the study revealed that 13% of waste collection companies have special collection schedules for the waste generated at quarantine collection points. The study’s authors suggested that creating automatic PPE dispensers and collectors would be the most helpful method in mitigating PPE pollution.

    The United States has not yet developed any formal strategy for collecting face coverings and other commonly polluted PPE. However, federal agencies are providing guidelines and recommendations to help prevent threats from improper PPE disposal. In their COVID-19 Beach Safety social media campaign, New York Sea Grant encourages beachgoers to take precautions and be sure their face coverings do not blow away and into the ocean. The Environmental Protection Agency advises against recycling PPE. PPE clogs machinery that sorts recyclables, and therefore, cannot be recycled. Recycling non-recyclable materials may break recycling machines, lengthen the manual sorting process, and even cause loads of recyclables to be rejected from recycling facilities and sent to landfills. As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is asking everyone to wear reusable masks, properly dispose of single-use masks if they must be worn, and encourage their friends and family to do the same.

    Personal protective equipment is crucial to combating COVID-19. In time, this pandemic will be an event in history. Just as nature conservationists encourage explorers to take only photos and leave only footprints, it is important that as we combat the coronavirus, we leave nothing behind besides stories to tell.

  • Jenna Santacroce
    NSGLC Research Associate

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