Masks Protect Us But What About The Environment

Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash

Till December 2019, China, the largest producer of masks globally, made 20 million single-use masks a day. By February, with the spread of the coronavirus, this number had soared to 116 million. The situation with disposable gloves and other personal protective equipment is the same.

A decrease in human activity is expected to have decreased our environmental pollution, including plastic waste. The reduction in plastic waste, however, has been more than offset by the increasing use of single-use PPE and the decline in plastic recycling.

In total, with this pandemic, the monthly global usage of face masks is estimated to be 129 billion units and that of gloves is 65 billion. Masks and other PPE are made of plastic, which is not recycled for fear of spreading the infection and, like all other plastic, is non-biodegradable.

The main component of the protective equipment is propylene and polyurethane, which stay in oceans for decades. Our oceans are already richly polluted with plastic waste — 5 trillion plastic particles are estimated to be floating around in them. A disposable polyurethane bag takes 20 years to bio-degrade; a plastic bottle more than 400.

Personal protective equipment isn’t the sole issue either. Lockdowns and quarantine mean an exponential rise in delivery of packaged food items and other goods of day to day use. Thanks to Covid-19, the global packaging market is estimated to grow from USD 909 billion in 2019 to USD 1012 billion in 2021.

An Old Problem Compounded

In February 2017, at the World Ocean Summit, the UN declared plastic pollution as a global crisis and called for a #CleanSeas campaign. It was estimated that if continue to litter our ocean at the current rate, by 2050 they will have more plastic than fish. Many, including the technology giant Dell, welcomed the initiative and pledged their commitment to the cause. Though only 10% of our plastic was recycled before the pandemic hit, small scale but conscious efforts were made to save our oceans and the planet.

The current unprecedented situation, however, has forced a reverse gear. Faced with a crisis, authorities world-wide revoked bans implemented on single-use plastics. Despite being aware of its environmental implications, we have no choice but to use single-use plastic PPE, for the lack of an environment-friendly alternative. Furthermore, the drop in oil prices has ensured the availability of cheap raw material, providing little incentive to recycle plastic. This has once more exposed our toxic reliance on plastic and the inadequacy of short-sighted policies, such as imposing bans, when it comes to far-reaching, global issues like plastic waste and environmental degradation in general.

While the use of plastic currently is inevitable, efforts to find better ways of its disposal and investment in research to find life-sustainable alternatives are needed now more than ever. Will someone take an initiative?

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Physician by profession and nerd by choice. I read & write about science, medicine, technology & programming.

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Fayyaz H Zafar

Fayyaz H Zafar

Physician by profession and nerd by choice. I read & write about science, medicine, technology & programming.

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