PPE: “The Protector and the Polluter”

discarded facemask

24th August 2020


Masks and gloves play a vital role in protecting the public against contracting Covid-19. The growing concern regarding PPE is its role in creating waste and damaging our environment. It’s become common practice for customers to throw away their masks and gloves on the ground outside shops instead of disposing of them in a bin.

PPE littering in Massachusetts got to a point where littering was made illegal and fines can reach up to 5,500 dollars. PPE is created to protect us, not create more environmental and health problems.

As well as littering, there is the problem of PPE equipment being put in recycling bins instead of placing them in a bag and putting them into the waste bin. Workers in private waste management companies encounter used PPE equipment daily. Although the employees use PPE themselves their health is still at risk due to the increasing numbers of used/reused PPE they handle.

The longer the pandemic lasts the worse the pollution in the ocean will become. A marine biologist in the United Kingdom, Emily Stevenson established the Beach Guardian Project with her father. They collect plastic and all sorts of rubbish that has ended up in the ocean. In one hour of litter picking at the beginning of August she found 171 pieces of PPE in the ocean, a significant increase in the amount of litter she found before the pandemic and the beginning of the pandemic.

Although Stevenson and the volunteers at the Beach Guardian Project have discovered a lot of PPE and disposed of it correctly and safely there still might be PPE polluting the seabed. Single use plastics can remain on the seabed for hundreds of years polluting everything around it. According to Stevenson’s research, if each person in the UK uses a single use face mask daily 66,000 tonnes of PPE equipment would be accumulated.


“If each person in the UK uses a single use face mask daily 66,000 tonnes of PPE equipment would be accumulated”


It’s not just the oceans that have been polluted, it’s the rivers too. Researchers who work at the University of London stated that the River Thames has been polluted by plastic which threatens wildlife and the health of people living in the area. They explained that pollution has worsened because there has been an increase in the disposal of single use plastics like cleaning products, masks and gloves.

Litter has built up along footpaths and roads in Ireland and across the globe due to people dumping face masks. Used face masks and used gloves have washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Laurent Lombard, the founder of Operation Clean Sea described it as “a swim with Covid-19” and “swimming in a table of microplastics.” It’s a harsh truth but it is the reality of pollution that we are facing in our world because of our own actions. Journalist Clodagh Finn, in her article in the Irish Examiner published on the 8th of August cleverly describes plastic as both a “polluter and a protector”.

Single use plastic PPE has been a popular and controversial topic of conversation in Ireland among politicians and the public. Grace O’Sullivan, a member of the Green Party and a Member of the European Parliament said there needs to be more awareness and education on how to safely dispose of single use face masks.

Refusal to use reusable or recyclable face masks can be a contributing factor to climate change because there has been an increase in the use of oil and energy to produce and manufacture single use plastic face masks. Awareness of the dangers and disadvantages of single use plastic face masks is not enough, action must be taken to create and support sustainable plastic face masks. Maybe when each party involved in producing and purchasing single use plastic face masks are fully     aware of the disadvantages and dangers of them, they will create and support sustainable plastic and other recyclable materials. 

It’s difficult to consider every important issue at any time of the year, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic. But just like the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis will not improve unless each and every person takes active steps to reduce their consumption of single use plastics. Some quick and simple things we can do are: educate ourselves on the most sustainable pieces of PPE equipment we can use, share this information with others and dispose of single use.



Featured photo by Pxfuel




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