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PPE And Plastic Pollution

Posted by Martin Hewitt on August 20, 2020

Various PPE (2 masks and a glove) are shown on seaweed by the sea. The items look used and thrown away

Photo by RECSTOCKFOOTAGE from iStock

You might think the Coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdowns had thrown enough at us already this year. However, we’ve now got to face up to the alarming reality of a world overflowing with PPE and even more plastic pollution, while still reeling from a massively destabilising few months.

One of the biggest tragedies of COVID-19 must be its timing. We spent the 2010s shouting with increasing volume and urgency about the importance of – The Next Decade. A decade when we need to take better care of ourselves, acknowledge environmental responsibility and recognise the impending humanitarian catastrophe if 20th Century attitudes continued.

Now The Next Decade is here, and it seems inevitable its early years are going to be spent getting back to the old ways. The same old ways we knew weren’t working in the first place!

Coronavirus has been the most significant collective trauma since World War II. Still, from an environmental perspective, it has provided vivid examples of how everyday life was slowly killing the planet. The air quality in cities across the world improved dramatically during lockdown, as we saw in images from smog-plagued sprawls like Beijing and Los Angeles. Wildlife returned to long-urbanised waterways, no longer put off by noise, traffic and run-off. But at the same time, plastic pollution has become an even greater concern.

Those questioning just how urgent the situation is should take a look at City To Sea, a UK campaign group focused on stopping everything from bottles to cable ties escaping into rivers and seas. The organisation’s current campaign is aimed at raising awareness of this new and rapidly escalating problem, and it throws some shocking numbers at you to prove the point. For example, between late-February and mid-April alone, there were more than 1 billion individual pieces of PPE given out across the country. This probably would have been manageable if it weren’t for the fact that the vast majority of it was single-use.

In the wake of a global health crisis, we’re now seeing images of stunning stretches of sand covered in face masks and other PPE (personal protective equipment) from across Asia’s paradise destinations. OceansAsia has published photos demonstrating this pollution on a grand scale.

The key problem is PPE was once primarily used in healthcare environments and it was disposed of appropriately. Sadly, face masks, disposable gloves and many more items have taken on new roles as pre-requisite items for leaving the house, especially if you or someone you live with or care for has been shielding. Many of us haven’t had to use, let alone dispose of these items before, so waste may not be treated correctly, even if it does wind up in the bin.

These frustrations are wasted if we don’t understand what can be done to mitigate the PPE plastic pollution crisis. As with so much about Coronavirus, things start at home and rely on individual action. You need to know how to correctly dispose of any personal protective equipment you use to help keep other people safe. This will also ensure waste doesn’t find its way into places it shouldn’t.

The problem is, as with so much about this awful Coronavirus, finding the right information is (worryingly) more difficult than it should be. More ‘facts’ are strewn across the internet than there are ice-cream wrappers in the River Mersey! Government advice on the subject, or at least the majority of it, is aimed at healthcare professionals. But we’ve not all been medically trained, and most of us need something that’s not written for a specialist audience.

Instructions should be short but sweet, and straightforward. We did a little investigating and found the City of Westminster’s online directions to businesses. Many now need to dispose of PPE in quantities with no prior experience, and were among the top Google results, and the easiest to understand.

Fundamentally, it comes down to two factors. If the PPE has been in contact with a potential infection source, you need to bag it, tie it, double bag and then store for 72 hours before throwing away, ideally after test results have come back. The waste should also be clearly marked. If there’s no concern about infection, then bag it, tie it, and throw it in the bin.

The running theme is ensuring everything is going in the actual waste bin even if you don’t think the item risks spreading any virus. Germs or not, it can still cause far more harm than good if we don’t take the time to make sure it’s disposed of correctly.

So, remember, please bin it and don’t just dump or drop it!