Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been an essential part of efforts to reduce the spread of SARS CoV-2 and prevent COVID-19. But the increased use of PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the rise of PPE litter, such as masks, gloves, and wipes.
A recent study by Trusted Source in the journal Nature Sustainability found that across 11 countries studied, the number of masks that ended up as litter increased 84-fold from pre-pandemic levels.
Researchers stress that individuals and governments need to consider the environmental impacts of PPE use while still ensuring public safety.
The study recommends that policies related to pandemics should incorporate measures to manage PPE waste. This may help reduce the negative environmental impacts from the mismanagement of PPE.
Since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on January 30, 2020, the researchers observed an increase in litter related to all types of PPE.
The amount of waste related to gloves recorded an initial spike and then a decline to about double pre-pandemic levels.
There was also a gradual increase in litter from wipes from March through August. The amount then declined to about double pre-pandemic levels.
The primary point of interest was the increase in litter from face masks. The litter from masks increased 84 times compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Before the pandemic, there was almost no litter related to masks.
Overall, the study provides evidence that the use of PPE can impact the environment, infrastructure, and people, particularly when people do not dispose of used PPE correctly.
Littered PPE could lead to the following consequences:
- Spread COVID-19 to others shortly after removal.
- Clog sewage systems and pollute areas, such as streams and rivers.
- Serve as a choking hazard or entanglement issue for animals.
- Spread pathogens and pollution.
Researchers encourage the adoption of policies and behaviors that can help reduce litter from PPE.
This includes companies and other entities encouraging the use of reusable items where possible and providing appropriate disposal bins in areas where single-use masks are required.