disposable face mask found on the beach

Did you know that 91% of the plastic produced has never been recycled? Yet calls to eliminate single-use plastics lost their force in the initial panic of the pandemic and the rush to secure personal protective equipment (PPE). As we get ready to end our second year of COVID-19, we have learned a lot, yet it is still common to see discarded PPE littering the landscape. Many of these items — including disposable masks, gloves, and antibacterial wipes — are designed for one-time use.

Unfortunately, so many people improperly dispose of PPE that we are experiencing a “plastic pandemic” on our streets, public transport, green spaces, and beaches, according to the Alliance to End Plastic Waste’s Jacob Duer. Improperly discarded PPE contributes to the overwhelming plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.

Here’s why this is a problem and what you and your community can do to reduce PPE waste.

The Problem: PPE in Our Oceans

Gary Stokes, the founder of marine conservation group OceansAsia, reported collecting 70 masks along 100 yards of beach near Hong Kong during a trip to the uninhabited Soko Islands in February when the pandemic had only just begun.

Here’s how they got there: When we don’t throw waste into a secure garbage can, wind can blow it into the gutter where it mixes with rainwater and is washed out to the rivers and sea. From there, it washes to near and far shores.

Marine animals like turtles and fish often mistake this waste for food. Ingesting it can lead to a slow and painful death. And plastic waste, like gloves, never fully degrades in water. Instead, it breaks into smaller pieces called microplastics.

Plastics are, pun intended, a mixed bag. Today, many consider them a necessary evil: Masks are proven to slow the spread of COVID-19, and when we don’t wear them correctly, more people become sick, hospitals use more resources, and we create more waste.

Worldwide, we are using an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves each month.

What We Can Do to Reduce PPE Waste

Due to both material and contamination issues, single-use PPE can’t be recycled in your curbside bin (but check out TerraCycle’s paid options for recycling disposable gloves). With minimal options for recycling disposable PPE, we must use less of it and dispose of what we use correctly and safely.

Avoid Single-Use PPE When Possible

The CDC website offers guidance for selecting, wearing, and caring for your cloth mask correctly. Make sure it fits properly and consists of two or more layers of fabric. To keep yourself and others safe, launder your reusable mask regularly.

Wash your hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds each time, instead of using plastic gloves or hand sanitizer. Hot water and soap are the best way to prevent the spread of infection.

Discard Single-Use PPE Safely

Disposing of PPE improperly puts essential workers and your neighbors at risk of getting infected. Take an extra step to protect them before placing your masks, gloves, and wipes in the trash. Use a reusable bag that can be sealed to store used PPE while on the go and dispose of it in your home garbage bin, sealing the bag before pickup.

Make It Easier to Properly Dispose of PPE

Businesses can use behavioral insights to combat PPE litter and “[make] trash cans convenient and conspicuous by tracing a path to them with green foot-step stickers, or [place] more of them in a given area” where people commonly remove PPE.

Use Educational Messaging

People respond well to motivational messaging and concrete calls to action in PPE disposal areas. Research has found that “emphasizing people’s duty to protect frontline workers can be effective.”

Enforce Littering Fines

Municipalities in Massachusetts and New York have imposed hefty fines on PPE littering, yet the threat is not enough to stop bad behavior when fines are not enforced.

The best road may be to combine existing fines with educational campaigns to mobilize the public and create a collaborative rather than punishing atmosphere.

Of course, we don’t need fines if everyone does their part. Dispose of used PPE responsibly to avoid contaminating others and for the sake of our oceans. Remember, we’re all in this together.

Feature image courtesy of Brian Yurasits on Unsplash. Originally published on October 8, 2020, this article was updated in January 2022.