The environmental cost of PPE


Aside from the obviously horrible impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (the deaths, the job losses, the toll on schoolchildren, the loneliness, the shuttered businesses and blown-up traditions), there are many other unfortunate effects. One is the environmental impact of mass quantities of disposable personal protective equipment, abbreviated as PPE.

To slow the spread of the virus and protect ourselves and others, we have been urged and, in many cases, commanded to wear face masks, some of which are made of cloth and reusable. Many of us also have donned plastic gloveswhich typically are a “one and done” item.

The journal Science in September ran a story that shared the cringeworthy news that a worldwide drop in the price of oil, a decrease triggered by people commuting and traveling less due to pandemic restrictions and concerns, has meant that the manufacture of “virgin” plastics is cheaper than recycling.

“This cost incentive, along with lifestyle changes that increase plastic use, has complicated the challenge of overcoming plastic pollution,” Tanveer M. Aydel wrote in Science. To illustrate the problem, he shared many alarming statistics, including“If the global population adheres to a standard of one disposable face mask per day after lockdowns end, the pandemic could result in a monthly global consumption and waste of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves.”

Aydel also pointed out that the surge in people ordering takeout or “to-go” restaurant food, and all the online ordering of other goods, has created an enormous amount of one-use plastic containers and boxes. “This global health crisis puts extra pressure on regular waste management practices,” Aydel wrote, leading to inappropriate management strategies, including mobile incineration, direct landfills, and local burnings.”

Closer to homeThe Washington Post in December published “A pandemic side effect: Used masks polluting California coastal waters,” which reported that along the state’s 840-mile coastline, PPE “are ending up on sidewalks, skittering into storm drains, blowing onto beaches and ending up in the Pacific Ocean and its bays.” Story author Scott Wilson pointed out that “many types of masks, including the most common surgical variety, contain plastics that taint ocean ecosystems and disrupt marine food chains.”

What can we do about this pollution problem? Back in May 2020, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency encouraged citizens to recycle PPE to whatever extent possible, as “recycled materials are used to make new products as well as the boxes that these and other essential supplies are shipped in for the everyday needs of hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies and American homes.”

Cloth masks and washable gloves help reduce waste, and in the past year have been widely used throughout the world. Disposable masks and gloves are as prevalent, probably more so. Can they be washed and reused?

Medical personnel, the doctors and nurses and other hospital workers who are doing all they can to help coronavirus patients recover, in normal circumstances must dispose of PPE after one use. Sadly, especially during the pandemic’s earliest days and alarmingly in many overrun hospitals this winter, a PPE shortage forced longer-than-mandated use, and even reuse.

But what about the rest of us? Can we put used masks in the washing machine and confidently rewear them out in public? A French consumer group claimed in November that “surgical-style face masks that are described as single-use and disposable are actually able to be reused and washed up to 10 times without losing their effectiveness.”

One thing Sacramentans can do to ease their PPE guilt is to drop used surgical gloves off at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op so they can be recycledThat might not seem like much, but every little thing we can do to curb the coronavirus and lighten its negative impact gets us closer to where we want to be.