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The Unforeseen Environmental Impact

The next time that you are outside for a morning run or bike-ride, try out this quick experiment: count how many face masks you see on the pavement and in the gutters. At this point, it doesn’t matter where you choose to do this experiment – it’s the same anywhere in the world. Fact is, single-use PPE is becoming a massive concern for environmental health.



Take a moment to put this into perspective: like many other things associated with COVID-19, single-use face masks, gloves, and gowns have gone from a relatively small market (medical and healthcare professionals) to being in-demand by nearly everyone on the planet. Production of PPE worldwide jumped from costing $40 billion to nearly $60 billion to keep up with the demands of the global pandemic. The math alone speaks for itself – say every person living in the UK wears a single-use face mask for 365 days, that would create 66,000 tonnes of unrecyclable waste that is now filling a landfill, or littering the streets of your hometown.


While we cannot know the exact number of lives saved by using PPE, we do know that the use of masks and protective equipment is, without a doubt, helping. However, right now we are focusing almost exclusively on our present problems rather than the potential problems that this process will cause in the future, even though the panic of a pandemic makes this tunnel-vision slightly more understandable. The vast amount of waste caused by the manufacture and subsequent disposal of our PPE is having a significant detrimental impact on our environment, with reverberations that are almost certainly going to be felt in the years to come.


What has become apparent is that the initial surge of COVID-19 is over – and we have fallen into less of a defensive knee-jerk reaction to it and more of a trench-warfare mentality. COVID-19 is, for better or worse, something that will be staying with us for an uncomfortably long time. The world needs to stop mass-producing quick solutions to problems and begin to experiment with how we are going to disinfect and reuse the PPE we already have.


This involves educating the public on sustainable practices and allowing these ideas to catch on and become popular: having multiple-use masks, for instance, that can be washed and used again. But the onus for sustainability is not just in the hands of the individual – the companies and government organizations overseeing the creation of PPE have as much, if not more responsibility. Experimenting with green technologies and prioritizing sustainable materials over plastic should be a priority for all who have a stake in PPE. This approach is also about using the tried-and-true methods of production and supply-chain to have a reliable and effective product when it comes to high-quality reusable PPE.


2020 has shown us that in times of crisis, we can pull together and look out for our collective needs. It is beyond time for us to do the same when it comes to the environment.

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