The Effect PPE Has On the Environment


Gull stuck in face mask
BBC. (2020). The elastic straps on the face covering had become increasingly tight around the gull’s legs [Photograph]. BBC.

The modern world has turned to PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) as a way to protect from the Coronavirus. PPE is any piece of equipment that helps protect not only the wearer but also any other person around the wearer. Examples of PPE include basic medical equipment such as gloves, masks, and eye protection. Although wearing basic PPE, against deadly diseases, isn’t a novel concept, the sudden increase in demand and removal of PPE may have detrimental effects on the environment around us. 

The PPE that will be mostly studied in this article is  masks. Within the past few months, masks can be sold almost anywhere; however, the mask that is most commonly found within the public is the surgical masks. They are approved by the FDA and the CDC. Surgical masks protect from hazardous fluids and respiratory emissions. They are mainly constructed from non-woven fabric, which according to are, “broadly defined as sheet or web structures bonded together by entangling fiber or filaments,” and “flat, porous sheets that are made directly from separate fibers or from molten plastic or plastic film.”  Examples of these materials include polystyrene, polyester, polycarbonate, and polyethylene. These are great materials to use in protective equipment because of the properties it is able to supply the wearers. Some of the properties include, liquid repellency, bacterial barrier, sterility, filtering, and cushioning (INDA, 2019). 

In these situations, it is equally as important to look at both sides of the argument. Mask wearing does stop the spread of the Coronavirus. As an environmental organization, Eco-Youth must raise awareness of  how this simple act could harm the planet. Ever since the start of the pandemic, researchers have been finding masks everywhere, including uninhabited islands of Soko in Hong Kong.  This is not good for the wildlife and the environment as a whole. Since the masks are primarily made of plastic fabrics, animals can end up eating the sing-use mask or other PPE. Even worse, the increasing flow of masks and other single-use PPE, which can have a lifespan up to 450 years, can lead to “impaired mobility, infection, limb amputation, starvation, suffocation, and death,” (Ocean Asia, 2020)  in marine life. This not only happens in countries like China, but the same effect has been studied in France where conservationists from the non-profit Opération Mer Propre have studied the French coastline and found the aftermath of the single-use PPE in the waters of the Mediterranean . Laurent Lombard, one of the people on Opération Mer Propre, warned the public on his Facebook by saying, “there is likely to be more masks than jellyfish in Mediterranean waters…!” 

From floating face masks to recycling cutbacks: how the pandemic has hit  the war on plastic
Laurent Lombard/Operation Mer Propr. (2020). Gloves and protective face masks seen in the Mediterranean in May, held by a volunteer clean-up diver [Photograph]. The Telegraph.

The world must take environmental precautions to prevent further damage to the environment. Countries like France have taken strides to prevent further contamination because not long after Mr. Lombard posted his concerns, a French politician, Eric Pauget expressed his concerns to the President of France, calling forth an effort to collect, recycle, decontaminate or sort the single-use masks to lessen the “environmental footprint in [French] societies.” (Eric Puaget, 2020). 

As a consumer, there are many options to choose from that can help from stopping the transmission of the Coronavirus and still be eco-friendly. It is important to know that some reusable face masks do not have the same medical-grade standards as some single-use masks. They might fit looser, so might not block all the small particles. Please still wear a mask to minimize contact with contaminated areas. If you are still using the single-use please cut off the straps because they can end up entrapping wildlife and end up posing a threat to their life.  Here are some eco-friendly options to choose from:

Masks from the Old Navy are equipped with three layers of cloth. They are made of 100% cotton, and are machine washed, and tumble dried. The Old Navy offers many patterns; however, most are on backorder. 

O2 Canada is a little more expensive than the rest of the other brands; however, it does have the highest protection. The masks come with filters (which will have to be bought if used up). The company provides different colored shells to customize the mask. Also, the mask is equipped with medical-grade silicone to provide a snug fit. 

Hyper Good upcycles waste to prevent waste coming into landfills. This company uses leftover materials to create their masks. Hyper Goos has a movement called BETTER PPE in which they donate a mask to an essential workers for every mask that is sold. 

Selva Negra is a LA-based company. They used eco-friendly materials such as cotton, silk, and linen. Most of the designs are plaid. They are also machine washable, but must be hung out to dry. 

Made Trade masks offer a two-layer face mask and are made of recycled materials  (hemp and organic cotton). They follow CDC and Kaiser Permanente’s guidelines for cloth face coverings. The masks come in adult and kids sizing, with an option for a filter (not included). Made Trade offers four colors to choose from. 


The Impact of COVID-19 on the Environment

Coronavirus: What providers, patients should know |

After being stuck at home for several months due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, it’s been hard to focus on the drastic impact that the virus has had on the environment. There have been several social media posts spiraling throughout the internet, but it may be hard to truly grasp what’s happening. From an initial glance, it may seem that the indirect impact of COVID-19 has been nothing but positive; however, the virus has impacted the climate in several different ways. 

Positive Outcome on Environment 

The outbreak of the virus has globally kept people at home since nearly the beginning of March, and in some areas, people have been stuck at home since the start of 2020. As a result, environmental pollution has been reduced to nearly 30%. Reduction in pollution has had many positive effects on air quality, water quality, and several other areas. Images depicting the before and after effects of quarantine on the canals of Italy have virtually gone viral, illustrating just how it only took a few months of minimal human activity to not only increase the quality of the water but also bring back wildlife. The improvement of water quality and cleanliness has been a global trend since the beginning of quarantine, and lakes have particularly been doing well due to the lockdown of businesses and reduced activity. 

Deserted Venetian lagoon | Italy's efforts to limit the spre… | Flickr
Credited to European Space Agency, contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2019-20), processed by ESA.

Not only has the quality of water been improving, but air quality and overall air pollution have also been doing well. The decrease in human activity as a result of quarantine has caused a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming is one of the planet’s greatest threats, with the most prominent cause being the emissions of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. With an increase in the reduction of mobility, transportation through means of fossil fuel burning vehicles, such as cars, have also been reduced. As of 2018, transportation vehicles emit up to about 30% of all greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Not only transportation but the reduction of human activity, in general, has resulted in the reduction of nearly 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a decrease in pollutant gas emissions. 

The reduction of pollution due to quarantine has had several indirect effects of areas outside of the climate. As previously stated, better water quality and cleaner bodies of water are allowing more animals to find shelter and food in areas that were once polluted. Another indirect effect is the impact that clean air and better air quality has had on the planet. A study conducted by researchers at Yale School of Medicine shows that in China, improvement in the quality of air has prevented thousands of pollution-related deaths in premature babies. An estimated 12,125 premature deaths were avoided because of the better air quality, as of May 4. 

Negative Impacts of COVID-19

Levels of environmental pollution have gone down due to quarantine, and areas such as beaches are beginning to clear up due to lack of tourists and visitors. However, there have been increases in inorganic waste. Quarantine has increased the demand for online shopping and at-home delivery, which has in turn increased both organic and inorganic waste generated by households. Medical waste is also slowly becoming a greater issue as used masks and gloves are beginning to pollute the streets and certain hospitals are producing a significantly greater amount of medical waste due to the surge of patients and higher demand. 

The most harmful effect that COVID-19 will have on the environment would likely come afterward. The positive changes that have been seen in the environment are unfortunately temporary, and as more and more people grow restless at home and begin going out again, not only will these positive changes go back to the way they previously were, but they could potentially be worse. With the focus being on the attempt to end the current pandemic, funding and financial support is being transferred from environment-related organizations. The current administration is aggressively pushing to reduce funding in necessary areas, and has successfully “suspended enforcement of air and water pollution regulations, curtailed states’ ability to block energy projects, and suspended a requirement for environmental review and public input on new mines, pipelines, highways, and other projects.” (National Geographic) The effects of this lack of funding and an increase in greater human activity as the pandemic becomes less of a threat could be catastrophic on the climate. We need to use this unfortunate situation as a wakeup call. After years of warnings about the dangers of climate change, it took a global pandemic to see a positive impact on the environment. We need to continue to fight for a better future because the long term impact that the virus could have on the environment could be more disastrous than ever.