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Coronavirus

PPE: polluting Planet Earth

Sir, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a huge surge in the worldwide demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), leading to a large increase in the manufacture and distribution of plastic-based face masks, gloves, and gowns.1 The demand for PPE is expected to stay at an elevated level, with an estimated annual increase of 20% in the production of single use face masks between the years 2020 and 2025.2 The environmental impact of this should not be underestimated, with discarded PPE being observed in the environment on a global scale.

Studies suggest that if each individual in the UK wore a single-use face mask every day for one year, 66,000 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic waste would be generated.3,4 There is no system in place for the safe or environmentally friendly disposal of potentially contaminated single use face masks for the general population, and a large amount are discarded in the general waste to go to landfill, or worse, are littered in the environment.

Disposal of single use PPE in the domestic general waste has led to a detrimental impact on our environment. Mismanaged plastic waste pollutes both marine and land environments, and there is a high risk of ingestion or trauma to organisms and contamination of habitats, threatening the safety of our ecosystems.5

Sustainable management of plastic-based PPE is challenging, and further research on green materials is paramount. As clinicians, we should be seeking multidisciplinary input from biomedical and environmental scientists to focus on the reuse and recycling of plastic-based PPE where possible within our working environment, and where contamination is not a potential risk. More importantly, we should be actively encouraging our patients and the general public to wear washable, reusable face masks, and shift towards the use of sustainable alternatives wherever possible.

References

  1. Singh N, Tang Y, Ogunseitan O. Environmentally sustainable management of used personal protective equipment. Environ Sci Technol 2020; 54: 8500-8502.

  2. Personal Protective Equipment Market. Personal Protective Equipment Market by Type (Hands & Arm Protection, Protective Clothing, Foot & Leg Protection, Respiratory Protection, Head Protection, End-Use Industry (Manufacturing, Construction, Oil & Gas, Healthcare) - Global Forecast to 2022. Available at: https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/personal-protective-equipment-market-132681971.html (accessed August 2020).

  3. Department of Health and Social Care. Experimental statistics - personal protective equipment distributed for use by health and social care services in England: 22 June to 28 June 2020. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ppe-deliveries-england-22-june-to-28-june-2020/experimental-statistics-personal-protective-equipment-distributed-for-use-by-health-and-social-care-services-in-england-22-june-to-28-june-2020 (accessed August 2020).

  4. UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub. The environmental dangers of employing single-use face masks as part of a COVID-19 exit strategy. UCL. Available at: https://d2zly2hmrfvxc0.cloudfront.net/Covid19-Masks-Plastic-Waste-Policy-Briefing.final.pdf?mtime=20200424170934&focal=none (accessed August 2020).

  5. Silva A L P, Prata J C, Walker T R et al. Increased plastic pollution due to COVID-19 pandemic: Challenges and recommendations. Chem Eng J 2020; 405: 126683.

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Dean, R. PPE: polluting Planet Earth. Br Dent J 229, 267 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41415-020-2130-5

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