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A Message from the CEO
I n the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an unfathomable toll on people around the world. At this point, approximately 12 months since the
At the same time, the impact of the pandemic is not limited to human health alone. The pandemic has dramatically increased the use of certain types of plastic products, notably personal protective equipment or PPE but also single-use plastic bags, food and beverage containers, and other single-use plastics that can harm our communities and the ocean and result in significant waste management challenges.
Early in the pandemic, many retail stores and restaurants quickly shifted their business models to focus on delivery and curbside pickup options while pausing indoor operations. Grocery stores that had previously encouraged customers to bring their own reusable bags temporarily reverted back to disposable paper or plastic options--despite research later indicating that surface transmission of the virus is rare. And essential workers in transportation, food and agriculture, and critical manufacturing started to use, out of necessity, the same kind of PPE in the workplace that has always been common in healthcare.
The rest of us became quickly familiar with PPE as well. At some point in the past year, 39 states plus the
In states without a mandate, such as
As we know from decades of experience tracking the problem of plastic pollution, increased use of single-use plastics translates into more plastics in our ocean.
This report is intended to shed light on the growing presence of PPE pollution since the start of the pandemic. It includes recommendations for how all of us can help prevent plastics from entering the environment in the first place while focusing efforts to ensure PPE and other plastics are responsibly managed. As we protect our communities and each other in the face of this invisible threat, we can also do more to protect our communities and our ocean from the impacts of the pandemic. Once the need for PPE subsides as the pandemic recedes, we have a real opportunity to reduce our overall plastics footprint and to ensure that the plastics that we use are recyclable, made of recycled content, and stay out of the ocean and our environment.
What is PPE?
Personal protective equipment or PPE are wearable items that are designed to keep individuals and the people around them safe from COVID-19. Common types of PPE that volunteers find during cleanups include:
Reusable or disposable face coverings are recommended by the CDC in public settings and required on public transportation. Single-use disposable face masks are commonly made from polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, or polyester.
Reusable or disposable gloves are recommended by the CDC when cleaning or caring for someone
A reusable shield that protects the face and is not currently recommended by the CDC. Face shields are made from polycarbonate.
Disposable cloths that contain a chemical solution designed to kill viruses and bacteria. Sanitizing wipes are commonly made from polyethylene terephthalate, polyester, or polypropylene.
Measuring PPE Pollution Worldwide
Health officials in nearly every country in the world are advising residents to wear a face covering to prevent transmission of COVID-19 in certain or all public spaces./2
The demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic caused shortages of masks and gloves early in the outbreak and has fueled tremendous growth in the PPE industry. Consequently, with this increased demand and use we've also seen PPE pollution become ubiquitous in the environment.
PPE is predominantly made of the same kinds of plastic polymers as other familiar plastic products, including single-use products such as bags and bottles. When lost in waterways or the ocean, PPE will likely behave like other forms of plastic pollution with similar characteristics, traveling in ocean currents, washing up on shorelines, and breaking down into microplastics. And like other forms of plastic pollution, PPE is a threat to ocean wildlife. News media have already documented the entanglement threat of ear loops on face masks, and conservation groups have cited animal deaths from ingesting PPE items as well./3
In response to the pandemic,
Besides reporting PPE found during cleanups (Figure 1), volunteers and coordinators also saw PPE in their communities on a regular basis. Half of the survey respondents reported seeing PPE pollution on a daily basis and another 42% saw PPE in their communities on a weekly or monthly basis (Figure 2). When asked to describe where they observed PPE pollution, a number of respondents noted that it tends to accumulate in certain places, such as outside restaurants and bars that require masks for entry to keep their customers safe. Respondents also noted that sanitizing wipes, another form of PPE, are sometimes visible in places where shopping carts are sanitized.
Link three figures below.
PPE pollution was most commonly found on beaches, the grass, and sidewalks (Figure 3), with 94% of surveyed volunteers and coordinators observing PPE on land. However, 37% of volunteers reported seeing PPE pollution in waterways and the ocean, too.
PPE Pollution During the Pandemic
Data collected by
Increases in both of these data categories compared to previous years substantiate the information we acquired through the survey. Nearly 92% of volunteers and coordinators surveyed reported that they proactively collected PPE pollution at cleanups. Several coordinators indicated that when it wasn't collected, it was largely due to perceived health risks from handling PPE. However, 30% of respondents reported that they did not record PPE data at all, again suggesting that the PPE numbers are likely a vast underestimate of what was in fact seen and collected by volunteers and coordinators alike. When advising volunteers on where and how to record PPE data when the PPE category was not available in the app (if, for example, volunteers were unable to update the app to the latest version), approximately 46% of coordinators surveyed reported instructing volunteers to record PPE as "Personal Hygiene" or "Other Trash" items.
PPE Pollution and Mask Use
This number is on the decline, but it still represents a very large amount of potential waste that could become PPE pollution without proper disposal. Researchers at the
As we achieve safer, healthier communities by wearing PPE, especially face masks, we should also be striving for a healthier environment by addressing proper management and disposal of PPE items.
Link two figures below.
PPE and Wastewater Infrastructure
In addition to threatening wildlife, PPE can strain wastewater infrastructure. Cities across
Wipes caused several mainline sewer clogs in
PPE, Microplastics, and Microfibers
Disposable PPE such as face masks and gloves is made from a number of different types of plastic polymers and is therefore likely to contribute to microplastic pollution as it breaks down./1
Microplastics are defined as any plastic that is 5 millimeters in length or smaller, and are either intentionally made for certain products (like microbeads in beauty products) or result from the degradation of larger plastic items. Plastic items that enter the environment slowly break up into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually forming microplastics. Thread-like microplastics, called microfibers, are produced from textiles shedding or abrading, but can also be formed when larger items containing fibrous plastic materials like cigarette filters break down./2
Two polymers common in PPE, polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), are frequently detected in ocean fauna, including fish, shellfish, and even marine mammals./3
Many species found to contain PE and PP are also eaten by humans, raising concern about the potential health consequences of exposure to microplastics not only to the marine organisms that ingest them, but also to human consumers. While more research is needed to understand the presence and potential consequences of microplastics in food and beverage products and humans, respectively, the current body of evidence suggests seafood may be a key vector for human exposure./4
* PPE collected by ICC volunteers in 70 out of 115 participating countries
* 107,219 individual pieces of PPE collected by volunteers
* 94% of volunteers and coordinators surveyed found PPE at a cleanup
* 40% of surveyed volunteers found 5 or more PPE items at a cleanup; over 50% of surveyed volunteers found 1-5 PPE items at a cleanup; less than 2% didn't see any PPE at their cleanups
* Nearly 50% of surveyed volunteers and coordinators reported that 75%+ of PPE was single-use/disposable
Recommendations for Action
The pandemic has been a stark reminder of how a sudden change to our daily lives can exacerbate existing environmental crises. This has been especially true of plastic pollution, which already reaches every corner of the globe. More than 11 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean annually, and plastics have been found everywhere from the deepest ocean trenches to the most remote, uninhabited beaches on the planet. All of us everywhere will have a role to play in reversing the environmental impacts of the pandemic.
* Implement legislation like the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act that addresses the full lifecycle of plastics and promotes a circular economy
* Ensure that guidance to address plastic pollution is included in any executive-level actions related to sustainability and federal procurement
* Direct federal agencies to phase out procurement of unnecessary single-use plastics
* Direct funding to reduce the burden and threat of plastics production and waste to the health of marginalized, underserved, and/or vulnerable communities in
* Provide robust funding across the government to ensure that all relevant agencies, including the
State and Local Governments
* Pass state-level policies that:
* Phase out single-use plastics, particularly those that are difficult or impossible to recycle and that frequently appear as litter on beaches and waterways worldwide during
* Create Extended Producer Responsibility programs to ensure the private sector takes greater responsibility for the entire lifecycle of plastic products they produce
* Establish recycled-content standards to increase demand for recycled plastics
* Ensure facilities and locations have sufficient receptacles for customers' and employees' used PPE to be disposed of safely
* If providing reusable PPE to employees or customers, follow health authorities' guidelines
* CDC recommends masks that have two layers of breathable fabric, cover your nose and mouth, and fit snugly/6
* Turn used PPE into new products
* Entrepreneurs in
* When sourcing non-PPE plastic materials and products, opt for those made with recycled content and that are easily recyclable to reduce the strain on current waste management systems
* Cut the ear loops of masks before disposal
* Much like six-pack rings, the intact ear loops of a mask can pose an entanglement risk to wildlife
* Dispose of PPE responsibly at home
* Used PPE should be disposed of in a garbage bag that is tied or otherwise sealed to prevent the contents from escaping
* Keep a trash bag in your car to stow used PPE when you're not at home
* Don't flush sanitizing wipes
* Follow health authorities' guidelines regarding the use of reusable PPE
* CDC recommends masks that have two layers of breathable fabric, cover your nose and mouth, and fit snugly
* Conduct a safe, socially distanced or solo cleanup
Data on PPE pollution collected by volunteers were gathered primarily through
Three specific item categories--"Personal Hygiene," "Other Trash," and "Gloves & Masks (PPE)"--were included in the year-over-year analysis. The first two categories have been part of the Clean Swell app and data card since 2016, whereas the PPE category was added to the Clean Swell mobile app and digital version of the data card in late
Two nearly identical surveys were created to answer questions related to PPE encountered and collected through ICC partners or cleanups. These surveys were virtually distributed to two audiences through email: ICC coordinators (cleanup organizers) and volunteers that had either submitted data to
Summary statistics were generated in Excel to compare number and percentage of respondent answers for each of the survey questions administered. For questions present on both the ICC coordinator and volunteer surveys, data for these responses were combined.
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The full report, including figures and footnotes, can be viewed at: https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/FINAL-Ocean-Conservancy-PPE-Report-March-2021.pdf
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