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The planet is suffocating in PPE waste

25th Sep 2020
The planet is suffocating in PPE waste

(Photo credit: Roksana Helscher/Pixbay/CC)

Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco made a joke, pre-pandemic, about meeting his neighbour for the first time, only to be greeted by a man in a “full medical mask.”

Horrified, Maniscalco joked that, as the man gave no explanation for wearing the mask, that his immediate reaction was to consider putting his house up for sale.

Those were the good old days — when medical masks were a rarity, a symbol of someone who had spent time in a hospital. Now, every supermarket around the world requires face coverings, conditional for entry.

The rule has, for one thing, exposed France’s ban on Islamic face coverings before the pandemic, the so-called “burqa ban,” as Islamophobic. Currently, in France, face coverings to protect against the coronavirus are mandatory in public spaces, but when coupled with Islamic garb, may cause the wearer to incur a fine.

Nevertheless, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has become a necessity for all populations, now more than ever as children return to school and adults to the workplace. The use of such equipment, which typically is disposable, increases waste.

Litter of masks and gloves has increased exponentially and even created trending cleanup campaigns, as well as cries from environmentalists encouraging people to make home-made, washable masks instead of buying disposable ones.
Oceans are at the greatest risk, already serving as a reservoir for tonnes of the world’s rubbish.

Doug Cress, Vice President of Conservation for the Ocean Conservancy, explained in a BBC interview that, “The glove or the mask that you take off and casually disregard because you think it was safe for that day could easily be the glove or the mask that kills a whale.” He also explained that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves end up in the environment every month.

Along Miami Beach, one young woman named Maria Algarra started a cleanup campaign after picking up over 50 gloves within 2 blocks.

The Glove Challenge encourages people to take pictures of littered PPE and share it on social media using the hashtag #TheGloveChallenge, and then to dispose of the litter properly. The hashtag campaign garnered worldwide support, with participants in Russia, Hungary and Southeast Asia.

Reusable or Disposable?

Even some medical experts have encouraged the general population to use cloth masks and to reserve medical-grade PPE for medical personnel. The initial worldwide shortage of PPE was traumatizing for doctors and nurses. China has ramped up production to keep up with demand, though some doctors in the US reported shortages as recently as July.

For a time, PPE was being price gouged around the world, but now greater production has brought costs back down to normal. There is debate about which masks are more effective — cloth (reusable) or medical (disposable).

The mask that is considered the safest against Covid-19 is an N95 mask, but the consensus is that those should be left for the highest-risk people.

Well-made cloth masks may even be better protectors from pathogens than disposable medical masks, depending on what material they’re made from, and so long as they’re washed frequently. New technologies are being rolled out to disinfect used PPE in hospitals so that staff may safely reuse it.

When it comes to PPE, even the staunchest environmentalists understand that more waste may be necessary to keep people safe and healthy during the pandemic, but as the world gets used to this way of living, the paranoia around getting the virus wanes.

Masks are valuable protectors, and well-made cloth options, multi-layered and tightly woven with natural fibres could keep a lot of disposable waste out of landfills and oceans.

A meme recently circulated that encourages people to cut the strings of their disposable masks, to help prevent animals from getting caught in the loops. While many people wear gloves in public, they are not a substitute for hand washing.

Some people wear gloves without washing their hands at all, which simply spreads the virus between surfaces via the gloves rather than one’s hands.

Many restaurants and cafés have abandoned reusable options in favour of disposable ones in order to show customers that they were taking proper precautions to protect their health and safety.

While it is disappointing that many business and political leaders around the world have seemed to abandon their ambitious plans to tackle climate change, each person’s decision concerning their personal safety can affect the amount of waste that is demanded, produced, and discarded.

Sakeena Marshall,
Grit Daily Staff Writer,
The Muslim News Environmental Columnist

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