The Dramatic Impact of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) on the Environment

Lily Collins

On March 11th 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the world was entering a global pandemic due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). This date will always be remembered as a significant and life-altering point in time in which the world would forever be changed. People in countries all over the globe entered sudden and unexpected periods of quarantine. Over the past year, new norms have been established and there is an immense need and therefore increase in demand, for certain goods and products such as personal protective equipment (PPE). Masks, which previously were only commonly used by the medical profession, have now become a staple for the general public worldwide. Masks, along with gloves, goggles, wipes, and bodysuits, have been used in enormous quantities to help control the spread of the virus.

Since the pandemic began, the use of PPE has rapidly increased to levels rarely imagined. Prior to the pandemic, the thought of wearing a mask in public, at least in the United States, was uncommon. Now, mask-wearing has been normalized and is expected in many public settings. The WHO has made an approximation that “89 million medical masks, 76 million gloves, and 1.6 million goggles have been needed to protect against COVID-19 every single month” (Environmental Science and Engineering Magazine) since the pandemic began. The billions of PPE items manufactured and used during the pandemic are not reusable nor recyclable, and therefore end up in landfills all over the world. Additionally, and unfortunately, the correct way to dispose of PPE is not always known or followed. As a result, many PPE items negatively impact the environment, in the form of widespread litter. For example, masks and other PPE have been found washed up on the shores of isolated communities who are void of COVID-19 cases. While COVID-19 has proved to be beneficial for some aspects of the environment in terms of reduced greenhouse emissions, PPE has had an opposite and detrimental effect.

There are many environmentally harmful components in PPE items, including but not limited to plastic, metal, and cloth. Plastic, for example, is well-known to be an environmental threat. Although metal is not always thought of as having a negative impact, it nevertheless needs to be considered as an environmental hazard. Without proper disposal of PPE, many types of unwelcome and damaging chemicals are deposited into various ecosystems and also introduce the possibility of additional health hazards. In addition, even the PPE that is being disposed of properly still contributes to the harmful effects of global warming. 

The addition and presence of foreign and harmful chemicals and components into the environment can be very damaging. Plastic breaks down into microplastics, and then eventually into nanoplastics. These microplastic particles then become established as part of the food chain, by way of soil and water, which leads to toxicity of the entire ecosystem. When found in marine ecosystems, these particles are ingested by fish and subsequently larger animals, continuing up the food chain. It will take hundreds of years for the plastics to be completely eliminated from life in the marine and terrestrial environments. In addition to the myriad of environmental problems this results in, it is also noteworthy that improper disposal of PPE could aid the transmission of COVID-19 among humans.

Although there may not be an optimal solution for disposing PPE, there are some options that are better than others. If you are using single use PPE, one of the best ways to throw out masks or any other PPE, is to put them in a closed bag prior to disposal. This helps prevent PPE from being blown away or separated from the rest of the garbage. It is also important to know that protection equipment, such as certain gloves and N95 masks, aren’t meant to be recycled. Awareness of proper disposal methods for PPE will lessen the negative impacts on the environment and the animals who call it home.  

While knowing how to correctly discard used PPE is vital in protecting the environment, buying and owning reusable PPE is the most substantial way of preserving the environment and its ecosystems. Utilizing this option reduces the amount of plastics, metals, and other harmful pollutants being released into the natural world.  Furthermore, reusable items also help by decreasing the environmental footprint caused by single use items. Make the choice today to reduce the use of single use PPE, and embrace the use of reusable PPE to fight against the increasingly problematic environmental degradation, as well as the pandemic. 


Sources: CBS8, CNN, The Conversation, Creating another problem? Sustainable solution for PPE disposal through LCA approach – Kumar, H., Azad, A., Gupta, A. et al., The energy and environmental footprints of COVID-19 fighting measures – PPE, disinfection, supply chains – Jiří Jaromír Klemeš, Yee Van Fan, Peng Jiang, Environmental Science and Engineering Magazine