PPE Waste: Another Ramification of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Maria Ashraf, Austin A. Mardon
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, there was an immediacy surrounding the production of PPE (personal protective equipment) in light of government regulations and personal protection. While there is no doubt that PPE has played an essential role in the reduction of risk and stopping the spread of the COVID-19 virus, it has produced some consequences. One ramification of this surge in production has been the consequent waste produced by PPE use. PPE refers to personal protective equipment like masks, gowns, gloves, shields, etc.) 1 that are used in healthcare and by the public. All of these materials are primarily composed of plastic materials and contribute to plastic waste. The World Health Organization currently estimates that over 81, 000 tonnes of PPE waste was produced during the March 2020 - November 2021 period.1 Not only does this number suggest an increase in plastic pollution, but it also signifies an unprecedented challenge.
This is because while PPE waste management is not a new phenomenon, the massive increase in public use and disposal is a novel challenge. With no prior knowledge or elaborate systems in place for proper PPE disposal and recycling at a public level, the ecological consequences are alarming. A recent study carried out on PPE waste reported that around 25,000 tons of PPE waste had reached the global oceans. 2 Likewise, masks and gloves have also ended up in local parks and other urban areas 3.
This uncontrolled disposal is not only an environmental issue but also has consequences for public health. Since PPE material is single-use equipment used for protection against illness,
contamination is another rising issue. Health-care workers are at a higher risk of being introduced to infectious and hazardous material 1.
Before seeking possible solutions, another key issue with PPE waste is that it does not impact everyone equally. The WHO estimates that around 30% of healthcare facilities around the world do not have the appropriate and adequate recycling programs in place 1. And out of those 60% come from developing countries 1.
On this account, a solution for this problem will require a global and multidisciplinary policy. Some practical solutions typically suggested by policyholders are to tackle the education side of proper PPE disposal and to reduce waste by promoting a decrease in use. In a study done on PPE waste in Canada, the authors called for a reduction in glove use and an increase in hand-washing 4.
Similarly, there have been studies done on developing efficient waste management systems specifically for PPE. A study was done by highlighting that waste management can help reduce. A novel study suggests converting PPE waste into construction materials 5. Other programs like GoZero Recycle and Vitacore in Canada have introduced PPE public recycling programs.
Another solution to this problem comes from policymakers. Policymakers emphasize the need for this problem to be addressed on a wider national and international level. An article published by the Canadian Science Policy center called for targeted government programs on PPE disposal and education 6.
In essence, the PPE waste problem is yet another challenging side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. While due to the lack of established systems and knowledge it will be difficult to cope with this upcoming challenge, it is necessary to protect the environment and equip us for the future.
1. WHO. Fortune favours the prepared: Fixing the covid-19 waste problem to build back better and tackle climate change [Internet]. World Health Organization. World Health Organization; 2022 [cited 2022Mar21]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/fortune-favours-the-prepared-fixing-the -covid-19-waste-problem-to-build-back-better-and-tackle-climate-change
2. Peng Y, Wu P, Schartup AT, Zhang Y. Plastic waste release caused by covid-19 and its fate in the Global Ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2021;118(47).
3. Pinard C. A plastic pandemic: The results of covid-19 PPE pollution [Internet]. Canadian Geographic. 2021 [cited 2022Mar21]. Available from: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/plastic-pandemic-results-covid-19-ppe-pollution
4. Ammendolia J, Saturno J, Brooks AL, Jacobs S, Jambeck JR. An emerging source of plastic pollution: Environmental presence of Plastic Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) debris related to covid-19 in a Metropolitan City. Environmental Pollution. 2020Dec4;269:116160
5. Mohan HT, Jayanarayanan K, Mini KM. A sustainable approach for the utilization of PPE Biomedical Waste in the construction sector. Engineering Science and Technology, an International Journal. 2021Sep25;32:101060.
6. Ammendolia J, Saturno J, Jacobs S. Environmental concern emerges over PPE waste - gloves, masks [Internet]. CSPC. 2020 [cited 2022Mar20]. Available from: https://sciencepolicy.ca/posts/environmental-concern-emerges-from-covid-19-pandemic-ppe- waste-by-the-public/
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