How to Reduce and Dispose of PPE Waste More Responsibly
What was the impact of plastic PPE during COVID-19?
- By Elizabeth Long
- Jan 27, 2023
The Impact of PPE on the Environment
Despite doing so much good on a person-to-person basis, personal protective equipment (PPE) is unfortunately not the best for the world around us. Let’s explore how much of an impact the sudden influx of plastic has had on the environment.
PPE and the Coronavirus
Given the sudden and rapid nature of the original outbreak of COVID-19, it was perhaps no surprise that the manufacturing of PPE struggled. Despite that, there were still billions of units produced across the world.
In the UK alone, the National Health Service (NHS) was using PPE at an alarming rate, with as many as 748 million items used in hospitals in just a 53-day period at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That equated to 14 million pieces of equipment needing to be thrown away on a daily basis.
When broken down further, the numbers showed 132 million masks being used, 145 million aprons worn, 1.2 million gowns worn and 470 million gloves worn.
In order to accommodate this sudden influx of PPE, the government was forced to enact a series of measures that would speed up the process of getting equipment where it was needed most—into hospitals and healthcare centers. These included moves like:
- Allowing the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities to fast-track product safety assessment processes
- Letting PPE that lacked a European CE safety mark on the market (as long as they still met essential safety requirements)
- Ordering a public call for any companies who could provide PPE as part of their day-to-day work
And while these drastic measures were useful in helping to fight the spread of the virus, the impact on the world around us was definitely not at the forefront of our minds.
By the end of 2020, in England alone, a whopping 6.76 billion items of PPE had been distributed.
This was up by nearly three times the usual figure, which sat at 2.43 billion in 2019. But where is all this excess PPE going once it’s no longer usable?
Short-Term PPE Damage to the Environment
The sudden influx of so much PPE unsurprisingly had a huge impact on nature across the world. With people unprepared for the management of this scale of plastic, drastic increases in the amount of waste in the natural world have been identified across the globe.
Wuhan, China, where the outbreak is believed to have started, experienced as much as a 370 percent rise in the amount of medical waste being produced. The Spanish region of Catalonia showed similar figures, with an increase of 350 percent by the end of April 2020 alone.
In just one day (February 24, 2020), Wuhan was able to tear through as much as 200 tons of medical waste.
That number accounted for nearly four times as much as the city’s only facility capable of disposing of such waste. These excess levels of wastage are far from an isolated issue. Jordan’s King Abdullah University Hospital (KAUH) highlighted how the amount of PPE being thrown away continued to steadily rise at the height of the pandemic.
It’s really easy to see how this excess wastage translates. British beaches were one of the hardest hit areas. In November of 2020, up to a third of them were littered with discarded PPE. Source To Sea Litter Quest found that as much as 69 percent of all discarded waste found on British beaches was in fact some kind of PPE.
With figures across the world overemphasizing the potential damage to the world around us, it will only be in the coming years that we truly discover just how harmful this influx has been.
Long-Term PPE Damage on the Environment
Given how much plastic and other non-degradable materials have found their way into the environment, there are bound to be a variety of long-term issues which we’ll have to come to terms with over the next few years.
With no clear end in sight for the regular wearing of face masks, the UK could experience an onslaught of medical wastage the likes of which it would never have dealt with before.
It is estimated that if every person wears a single-use face mask every day for a year, as much as 66,000 tons of unrecyclable plastic waste could be thrown away.
On a top level, this would have drastic long-term impacts on a number of environmental factors, such as:
- Damage to marine ecosystems
- Damage to natural on-land ecosystems
- Contamination and pollution of natural resources
- Ingestion of wastage by wildlife
When looking at the potential damage more closely, the following issues are likely to prove an ongoing concern to people and wildlife everywhere.
Degradation into rivers and sediment. The polymers and polyethylene plastics that are commonly used in the creation of PPE often degrade into smaller pieces of microplastic. These will commonly enter and contaminate rivers and oceans while also posing a threat to sediment levels on farmyards and other industrial landscapes.
Blocked sewage systems. This can be a particular problem in developing countries, which experience crowding and overpopulation in their larger cities and towns. This is a common side effect of plastic waste of any kind being littered in open terrestrial (on land) or aquatic environments of any kind.
A threat to biodiversity. Any excess wastage in a natural environment always runs the risk of being ingested or caught on wildlife. This is not just an issue with larger items but can also become a factor when micro and nano-sized particles are ingested. These are able to cause internal abrasions and even blockages.
Breeding grounds for some diseases. In an ironic twist, lingering PPE could even serve as the perfect hosting ground for the creation and spread of further disease. Zoonotic diseases are often spread in this way—which can, over time, mutate and begin to harm humans as well as animals.
The world was already in the midst of a pollution crisis before the outbreak of COVID-19.
As much as five trillion pieces of plastic debris were estimated to be found in the world’s oceans, while anywhere from 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic waste entered the marine environment as far back as 2010.
Wider Plastic Waste and the Pandemic
While PPE has been at the forefront of this sudden rise in waste, it’s not the only cause for concern. A variety of factors have combined to cause major fluctuations across the market as a whole.
The sudden need for single-use PPE, takeaway dishes for curbside pickups, bubble wrap for the transportation of online shopping and numerous other COVID-related factors have directly resulted in a surge in plastic production.
This has directly contributed to a price war between recyclable plastic and “new plastic”—the latter of which is far more damaging for the environment, but also anywhere from 83 to 93 percent cheaper to produce.
Unsurprisingly, it’s this material which most companies have turned to in order to meet these exceptionally high pandemic-driven demands. A recent report found that a rise in new plastic usage has seen recycling rates drastically drop the world over.
They found that the sudden influx of single-use new plastic resulted in far fewer materials being recycled, with the numbers showing a 60 percent drop in the U.S., 50 percent drop in Asia and 20 percent drop in Europe.
In even more news, the oil industry has pledged as much as $400 billion to the production of new plastic, but just $2 billion (0.5 percent of that figure) to reduce the amount of plastic waste across the world.
Numbers are startling all across the world. Plastic packaging has seen a huge increase in Thailand, shooting up by 15 percent from 5,500 tons of production a day to 6,300. This has largely been a result of a rise in the demand for food to be delivered door-to-door.
Elsewhere, in Singapore, in just a two-month circuit-breaker period, a whopping 1,334 tons of plastic waste was generated. This was again a result of takeaway meals.
The problem for governments across the world has been the sudden and unpredictable nature of the pandemic’s impact. In Wales, for example, initial plans had been for there to be zero waste in landfills by 2050, with as much as 70 percent of all rubbish being recycled.
How to Recycle and Dispose of PPE Responsibly
The sheer scale of PPE wastage we’ve looked at might be a little demoralizing for some. But don’t worry—there are steps everyone can take to make the impact of PPE on the world that little bit less extreme. Read on for advice on how to responsibly dispose of any waste.
PPE Recycling Guidance—How to Recycle Single-Use Items
One of the biggest challenges people face when trying to be responsible is understanding what can and can’t be recycled. In the case of most single-use PPE, it’s highly advised not to try and recycle your used products. This extends to:
- Disposable face masks
- Paper towels, tissues and napkins
- Disinfecting wipes
These pieces of equipment are often flimsy, meaning they tend to clog machinery at recycling plants. What’s more, they also carry the risk of spreading the disease—completely negating their original purpose.
While that might all sound like doom and gloom, there are alternatives that give you the chance to dispose of single-use items without damaging the environment. For example, programs have been set up to collect, clean and then repurpose PPE which would have otherwise found its way to landfills, beaches or been incinerated.
These systems allow gloves, face masks and other forms of safety equipment to be recycled, so long as they are made from materials such as vinyl, latex and nitrile. Fabrics and paper materials cannot be taken (but the former are washable and therefore reusable).
How to Safely Dispose of PPE Used During COVID-19
If you’ve been using PPE with the express purpose of protecting yourself from COVID-19, there are special ways to dispose of your equipment. With the threat of accidentally spreading the virus a real possibility, be sure to follow this specific set of guidelines to reduce your risk of contaminating yourself, or others.
- Place any PPE you’ve used in a plastic bag and seal it tightly.
- Place this bag inside another bag, and again tie it as tight as possible.
- Keep this bag in a safe place for up to 72 hours.
- Send it to your local waste incineration center for disposal.
It’s also important to remember to keep any waste, however well contained, away from children, outside of communal areas and off the streets (in case it’s taken by public waste collectors).
Remember to try to dispose of waste in this manner as a last resort. Consider all your options first, and try to see if it’s possible to recycle your PPE with the help of one of the systems mentioned in the previous section.
Advice for Reducing the Amount of PPE Wastage
While wearing PPE is a must in a lot of situations during the pandemic, that doesn’t mean you can’t also be sensible with your usage. Keep these tips in mind if you’re thinking about trying to reduce the amount of PPE you’re throwing away.
Avoid single-use as much as possible. By reducing the amount of single-use PPE items you’re utilizing every day, you’ll instantly go a long way towards being more sustainable. While this can’t always be avoided, you will be able to buy more industrial masks and gloves which can be washed and then used again.
Buy in bulk. For things like sanitizer and paper towels, it sometimes makes sense to buy items in bulk. This allows you to reduce the amount of smaller plastic containers you need, while potentially also saving you a little money in the process. It’s a win-win.
Always check recycling options first. Before you buy anything, be sure to check to see if the item in question is able to be recycled. While this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to avoid a purchase, it’s something that might have a big influence on your eventual decision.
Approach all aspects of life more sustainably. By taking a more wide-scale approach to sustainability in all areas of your life, you’ll make it easier to think about using PPE in a more efficient way.
If you follow these steps, you’ll have a significantly lower impact on the levels of plastic waste being pumped into the environment. As we’ve seen, in the UK alone, the average person accounts for 99 kilograms of waste a year. Following this guidance will see you take active strides to reduce that number.
About the Author
Elizabeth Long is passionate about reducing the negative impact that we have on the environment around us, and learning new ways to sustainably manage our lifestyle. Long favors data-driven articles to help illustrate the scale of the problem for a wider audience.