Sustainable COVID-19 Protection: Considering the Environment While Staying Healthy
Plastic waste is a global environmental challenge, with billions of tons generated every year. More than half of the plastic entering our environment is not recycled and is damaging our ecosystems in many different ways. We cannot cope with the amount of plastic waste already present on our planet, let alone the massive amounts that will continue to be produced. To tackle this issue, there have been significant efforts by governments, NGOs, industry, and academia worldwide to find alternative green materials and efficient recycling technologies and raise people’s awareness about waste management practices.
In 2020, a new source of waste was created as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We woke up to a world where personal protective equipment (PPE) was a must for almost everyone. Masks, gloves, face shields, and surgical gowns become one of the most purchased items worldwide. For instance, the estimated global sale of masks increased two hundred times from around $US800 million in 2019 to about $US166 billion in 2020.
PPE is mostly single-use and non-biodegradable, leading to massive amounts of PPE waste. As Laurent Lombard from the French conservation group Operation Mer Propre told the UK’s Independent newspaper, “Soon there will be more [discarded] masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean.” This is the sad reality until billions of people are vaccinated worldwide, which may not happen soon.
In parallel with fighting the pandemic, there is a strong need to produce reusable and biodegradable PPE and develop reliable techniques to disinfect PPE so it can be used more than once. Both approaches are currently being investigated by academia and industry. For example, efforts are being made to transform low-value biomass to higher-value biodegradable plastics that can be used as PPE. A breakthrough could take years, however.
As individuals, we must support all these efforts by participating in and promoting vaccination campaigns in our communities and managing our use of masks and gloves without compromising our health.