June 16, 2021

PPE Waste in the Ocean: Standardized Approach Urgently Needed

News Source: IISD

Author(s): Rukiya Abdulle

Last week the UN engaged in a virtual celebration for World Oceans Day, focusing on the theme ‘Life and Livelihood.’ With a global audience tuning in, the event presented fundamental discourses surrounding ocean health, highlighting the critical role that the ocean plays in sustaining our planet, its anthropogenic impacts, and how the blue economy along with the private sector can better support ocean sustainability.

Bringing light to how life and livelihood are deeply connected to ocean health makes one consider how the abrupt and difficult transition that COVID-19 imposed on people around the globe has affected the ocean as well. Recent research suggests that one of the most profound nuisances to ocean health – plastic waste – has been amplified over the course of the pandemic.

With over 5 trillion plastic pieces making a home of the ocean, this form of waste has been categorized as a planetary boundary threat, according to a 2020 article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. According to the authors, the threat posed by plastic waste is consequential due to its irreversible chemistry, along with persistent qualities that risk harming ecological populations and broad ecosystem functions. The extensive use of single-use personal protection equipment (PPE), which contains plastic, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has made significant contributions to plastic waste and environmental harm; an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used globally each month, the article reports.

A February 2021 study published in Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering compares the prevalence of disposable masks to water bottles. However, the authors note that unlike water bottles, “there is no official guidance on mask recycling, making it more likely to be disposed of as solid waste.” This points to a policy problem: the lack of standardized PPE waste management. Indicative of the threat that PPE poses to life and livelihood, is its boundless reach, disposable “masks can be transported from land into freshwater and marine environments by surface run-off, river flows, oceanic currents, wind, and animals,” according to the study. Aside from the physical effects, its notes that disposable facemasks, if accumulated, have the potential to release pathogenic microorganisms, harmful chemicals, heavy metals, and toxic biological substances

Although PPE waste management is a defined and risk-adverse process in the medical field, the widespread adoption of face masks, gloves, and other PPE by the general public requires immediate attention. In accordance with SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), the Environmental Science & Technology article calls for PPE “end-of-life” to be handled as infectious material.

To mitigate anthropogenic effects on the ocean and the ecosystem services that it offers, global action needs to be taken with respect to fulfilling SDG targets 12.4 and 12.5 by mitigating the risk of single-use, plastic PPE. As noted in the February 2021 publication, “critical rethinking of the three ‘Rs’ can be valuable”- that is regulating the use of single-use PPE, promoting reusable masks, and replacing single-use plastic masks.

In observance of World Ocean Day, this article reflects my hope that more research will emerge on the environmental effects of single-use, plastic PPE to ensure we can be predictive and preventative and not simply reactive when working towards a sustainable future.