In Brief

Fact check: is PPE causing an environmental pandemic?

Millions of masks, gloves and hand-sanitiser bottles are piling up in oceans

Conservationists are warning that the Covid-19 pandemic is sparking a surge in ocean pollution, with single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) washing up on shorelines and littering seabeds.

In the UK alone, more than a billion items of PPE such as masks and gloves were given out to NHS staff between the end of February and mid-April, according to the BBC.

Because hospital-grade PPE can only be used once, in order to avoid the risk of spreading infection, healthcare workers are getting through huge amounts, says Carly Fletcher, a researcher in sustainability at the Manchester Metropolitan University, in an article on The Conversation.

And because most PPE is not recyclable or biodegradable, much of the discarded gear is being dumped into our oceans.

“Waterlogged masks, gloves, hand sanitiser bottles and other coronavirus waste are already being found on our seabeds and washed up on our beaches, joining the day-to-day detritus in our ocean ecosystems,” says the World Economic Forum.

French clean-up charity Operation Mer Propre is among a growing number of conservation groups calling for action by governments. “There risks being more masks than jellyfish,” the organisation’s Laurent Lombard said in a Facebook post last month.

University College London’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub has calculated that if every person in the UK alone used one single-use face mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste.

The group of researchers are urging the public to wear reusable, rather than single-use, masks where possible.

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