The Growing Crisis of COVID-19 PPE and Single-Use Mask Waste

Phone, keys, mask. The standard checklist routine before leaving your home.

As the world passes a year of the pandemic and the measures put in place to prevent the spread, masks have become essential to our daily routines. Even with the start of vaccine accessibility, most governments require face masks to be worn in all indoor settings. Many experts believe mask wearing will be enforced at least until the end of 2021 and possibly longer.

There is no question that masks successfully reduce the spread of COVID-19, but there’s a growing negative environmental side-effect. The volume of plastic waste has significantly increased with the rise of PPE and mask use. The need for healthcare workers to dispose of plastic-based PPE after single use based on the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines only exacerbates matters.

A study from the University of Southern Denmark estimated that 129 billion face masks are globally disposed of every month. In other words, 3 million masks are discarded every minute. In the last year, the PPE waste production increased 350% in Spain and by 370% in China. In the UK, the health sector has produced three times the amount of infectious waste than normally produced.  

When waste is deemed hazardous, such as COVID-19 PPE, it is standard for the waste to be incinerated, causing an increase in CO2 emissions. With such drastic spikes in hazardous waste usage globally, there is growing concern about the long-lasting effects the pandemic will have on the environment.

Beyond the rise of greenhouse gas emissions, COVID-19 PPE is also creating a plastic pollution problem. In France, divers are finding latex gloves, plastic sanitizer bottles, and single-use masks in the ocean. In Hong Kong, face masks are collecting on beaches and walking trails. From personal experience, finding masks littered on city streets is becoming standard. Each one of these stray masks will take hundreds of years to break down.

What We Can Do?

It goes without question that everyone should be following guidelines to wear masks and continue to adhere to the advice provided by immunization and health policy experts. However, there are opportunities to still follow mask and PPE guidelines, while also keeping the environment in mind.

Wear Re-usable Masks if a Non-Healthcare Worker

UCL recently conducted a study that found wearing non-reusable masks reduces the amount of students’ plastic waste by 95%, and wearing non-reusable masks with disposable filters reduces students’ plastic waste by 65% in comparison to wearing single-use masks.

The best types of fabrics for re-usable masks are 100% cotton. For best filtration results, scientists recommend that the mask consist of three layers, with either a disposable polypropylene filter or different fabric material in between the two layers of cotton. If trying to go completely re-usable, one study found that a piece of silk might serve as a better filter material than synthetic plastic due to its breathable and natural water repellent properties. If a two-layer cotton mask with a pocket insert is not readily accessible, here are instructions to make your own.

Sterilize and Re-Wear Nanofiber Masks and Filters if a Non-Healthcare Worker

Single use health grade masks are increasingly available to the general public. The standard material is a melt-blown polypropylene filter found in N95 masks, but recent studies have found a new material, nanofiber, to be just as effective for filtration. The perk to masks with nanofiber filters is their reusability quality. When spraying with a 75% ethanol solution (rubbing alcohol) after single-use, the nanofiber mask remains to have the same 95% filtration rate compared to their first use. In comparison, melt-blown filters decrease their filtration efficiency to 64% when sterilized by the 75% ethanol solution after single use.

Nanofiber is still quite difficult to find, so don’t worry if it’s inaccessible to you right now. For melt-blown filters, if you want to re-use them, the best type of sterilization product is hydrogen peroxide over ethanol solutions—although their filtration effectiveness will still decrease compared to the first use. 

Support Research and Programs Focused on Re-using PPE and Reducing PPE waste

Forbes reported on a Cardiff-based firm, Thermal Compaction Group (TCG), partnering with Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust to take their PPE waste and recycle it into materials to make new products. Machines convert the waste material by heating it to 350 degrees Celsius and compressing it into rectangular blocks, which are then converted into plastic pellets that can be made into products like bottles and furniture. The device’s heat nearly sterilizes the material, although TCG currently does not use the technology on contaminated waste. Still, this innovation provides insight on how we can move forward in finding solutions to the COVID-19 plastic waste problem.

As we continue to fight the pandemic, governments and private institutions should advocate and put resources towards efforts on managing and recycling PPE material.

Nicole Schaller is passionate about creating effective positive environmental change in her community and learning about new sustainable technology. Graduating from American University with bachelor’s degrees in Journalism and Psychology, she lives in Washington DC and works at a medical clinic’s communication department. Her goal on this platform is to make sustainability approachable and unintimidating. She is a proud parent to her basil plant Bartholomew.

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