COVID and the Increase in PPE Trash

by | Nov 8, 2020

This may surprise some people – it’s one of few times M-PASS will ever talk about NOT recycling something.

COVID-19 has affected almost every part of our lives for the better part of 2020. And, sadly, it shows no sign of letting up. It’s impossible to quantify the toll the coronavirus has had on people’s lives.

Now we’re seeing that things we need to keep us and others safe – Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – are causing a new environmental problem.

In June, 2020, the magazine Environmental Science & Technology published a study detailing the world’s use of disposable masks and gloves during the pandemic so far. At that point, they recorded a monthly usage of 129 billion disposable masks and 65 billion disposable gloves. While this waste causes widespread environmental contamination, it is also a significant public health risk since these materials could be contaminated with the virus that causes COVID-19.

The production of face masks dramatically increased from the beginning, as reported in a March 2020 article in the South China Morning Post. When the demand for PPE rose in February, “… single-use face mask production in China rose to 116 million per day, about 12 times the usual quantity produced.”

If these single-use masks and rubber gloves aren’t disposed of properly, what were initially protective items end up as public health and environmental risks. The pathogen can survive a different number of days on different surfaces which makes taking appropriate steps for disposal crucial.

Have you been seeing discarded masks in parking lots or in street curbs? Obviously that’s not appropriate disposal protocol. Much of this product meant to protect people is being thrown away carelessly. When this personal protection equipment (PPE) is discarded in public areas, it could end up clogging sidewalk drains or maybe getting picked up by a young child.

The problem has become so pervasive worldwide that the United Nations recently issued guidance highlighting how critical it is to properly identify, sort and dispose of this type of medical waste.

As long as the pandemic is here, disposable masks and gloves will also be here, probably in ever-increasing numbers

But as is often the case in a crisis, there is inspiration. Troy University’s Center for Materials and Manufacturing Sciences is researching new methods for producing polymer-based PPEs. The institution located in Troy, Alabama was founded in 2018 with support from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Research was already underway when the October 6th edition of the Dothan Eagle reported that the NIST had awarded the research facility a $3.5 million grant to fund its continued research and development of methods to recycle personal protective equipment. The center has partnered with the University of Alabama at Birmingham College of Engineering in the research. While this work is currently focused on the pandemic, it will also have great value in dealing with the issue of medical waste in general.

If you’re wondering how you can help right now:

  • Properly dispose of any single-use PPE;
  • Substitute reusable, washable masks for disposable ones; and
  • Evaluate if your work or your errands require plastic gloves, or if correct hand-washing with soap and water and hand sanitizer will suffice.

“As hard as it is for me,” said M-PASS’s founder Lorraine White, “I have to say that some things just can’t be recycled. We just need to safely contain them by carefully putting them in the trash to avoid a public health risk.”

Read more

United Nations: Waste management an essential public service in the fight to beat COVID-19

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