Unmasking the Public & Environmental Impact of PPE Waste

by Anders Hans Hinrichs

With reports from the UN that over 90% of COVID-19 cases are in urban areas, it’s no secret that cities have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. The outbreak within (and gradual reopening of) cities has meant that for many of us, face masks and plastic gloves have become a part of everyday life. 

While these items are incredibly important to reduce the spread of infection, the improper disposal of these single-use plastics are posing huge environmental and public health risks.

How can cities minimise the impacts associated with the usage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the age of COVID-19?

How big is the problem?

The global use and disposal of masks and gloves is estimated to amount to a staggering 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves for every month of the pandemic. 

There are already 8 million tonnes of plastic waste entering our oceans each year. Adding the improper disposal of face masks and plastic gloves to the equation could lead to an environmental disaster that could last generations.

The face mask footprint

Even with the correct disposal of PPE waste, the environmental impacts are devastating. Add in the current reality of incorrect disposal, and the situation becomes even more dire. Far too often, masks are being littered on our streets, stuffed into already overfilled city bins, or washed into our waterways. The problems with the above points are threefold;

#1 Plastic Pollution

Single-use medical face masks (the ones you’ll find at your local supermarket) are composed of large amounts of polypropylene, a fossil-fuel derived plastic. Used face masks are unable to be recycled, due to the obvious fact they may be contaminated, so are destined for landfill or incineration.

Polypropylene can take 20-30 years to break down in landfill and also releases toxic substances during the process which can leak through to groundwater. When incinerated, polypropylene releases harmful gases that pollute our atmosphere.

The increased usage of non-recyclable polypropylene is undoubtedly having a negative impact on the environment.

#2 Environmental Damage

A study in the UK predicted that if everyone used a single-use face mask every day for a year, it would result in 66,000 tons of contaminated waste. Face masks, gloves and other waste are already being found in our nature, seabeds and being washed up on beaches.

The particles of micro-plastics in the masks pollute the water, endangering fish and other wildlife. As the masks begin to break down in the oceans, plastic particles will remain in our oceans and build up in the food chain, eventually becoming dangerous to human health.

Masks can also be mistaken for food and consumed by some marine animals, with detrimental results.

#3 Public Health Risk

Along with the threat of pollution, coronavirus waste also has implications for quality of life in urban areas. In largely populated areas where face mask use is widespread, cities have become hotspots for face mask littering.

Images can be found on social media showing the shocking amount of face masks discarded on city streets, in parks and beaches. The incorrect disposal of used face masks or plastic gloves can risk spreading the infection they’re designed to protect against. 

While not everyone is guilty of littering face masks and gloves in the street, increased usage means bins and waste containers often do not have the capacity to hold the used masks. Overflowing bins are therefore also becoming a problem for municipalities, which can cause contamination and put citizens and waste collectors at risk of infection.


A trash bin overflowing with face masks in Tampere, Finland

A trash bin overflowing with face masks in Tampere, Finland. Image: Antti Eintola / Yle

Efforts to reduce the impact of single-use PPE

In order to ensure the health of communities and protecting our essential workers during Covid-19, municipalities are trying to come up with solutions to encourage the proper disposal of face masks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that face masks are to be disposed of immediately as they become damp and discarded into a closed bin. 

Should cities be implementing more specific waste solutions for face masks? In order to reduce the amount of overflowing bins, city planners could potentially establish separate bins in the street specifically for Covid-19 related waste, such as face masks and gloves.

Signs and imagery could be used in the surrounding area in the hopes of nudging or reminding people to dispose of them correctly. Citizens should also be encouraged not to throw masks in public bins, which are already overflowing. Should there not be a bin available nearby, they should be encouraged to take the mask home and dispose of it there.

As recycling is clearly not an option with potentially contaminated waste, finding an environmentally-friendly method of disposal is not an easy task. Ultimately, disposing of masks into a bin really is the safest and most sustainable option. 

Researchers around the world are exploring the creation of personal protective equipment for the public that have less adverse effects on the environment and provide the same level of protection as medical masks.

Projects include developing biodegradable antiviral filters that can be changed daily, reusable filters that can be washed whilst maintaining efficacy, and facial protection equipment that can be reused after being disinfected.

However, for the majority, single-use medical masks seem to be the most widely used due to their efficacy, low price and convenience.

Is smart technology part of the solution?

The vast increase of Covid-19 related waste has compelled municipalities and planners to turn toward innovative technologies for smart waste management solutions. The increased waste and overflowing bins increase the chance of masks being littered, which creates the potential for infection and negative complaints from the community.

WasteHero’s smart bin sensor and waste monitoring platform can be used by cities to reduce the amount of overflowing bins and ensure that they are collected when necessary, not before or after.

This can help ensure that waste collectors can pick up face mask waste safely and efficiently, keeping public areas in cities free from the pollution and clutter caused by overflowing bins. 

In a future full of uncertainty, progressive cities post Covid-19 are looking toward adopting more sustainable technological solutions within their development plans. 

Want to find out more about the WasteHero solution for cities? Contact a WasteHero expert today.

Written by

Anders Hans Hinrichs

Director of Business Development

  • Waste
  • Municipality
  • Future
  • Trash
  • Recycle

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