Surgical masks are washing up in growing quantities on the shores of Hong Kong © Anthony Wallace/AFP

Carmen Barrera has been fishing in the waters around the Canary Islands for almost a decade. But only in recent months has she noticed the large number of plastic gloves and other items of personal protective equipment floating in the water or caught in her nets.

“It worries me a lot,” Ms Barrera told the Financial Times from her Tenerife home. “From the first moment people began to wear gloves and masks, we’ve also began to see them at sea. The problem is in how people use and dispose of their waste.” 

PPE production has surged in recent months as healthcare providers have collectively bought millions of items to prevent the spread of coronavirus among their staff, and citizen have taken to wearing masks and other types of protection to better shield themselves.

But as the global health emergency has taken centre stage, many believe the battle to reduce plastic waste has been sidelined by both governments and conscientious consumers.

“PPE is the tip of a mountain of toxic plastic waste that we’ve been ignoring for years,” said Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, a not-for-profit group seeking to wean people off the material.

A study published on Thursday forecasts that the flow of plastic into oceans would nearly treble by 2040 to 29m tonnes per year if much greater action was not taken by governments and industry. “We’re getting ourselves deeper and deeper into a plastics hole without knowing where any of it is going,” said Martin Stuchtey, managing partner at SystemIQ, a sustainability group that co-authored the report.

Much of the PPE used around the world is single-use by design and can contain a range of different plastics, from polypropylene and polyethylene in face masks and gowns to nitrile, vinyl and latex in gloves. 

Chart showing the fate of plastics, global plastic production and use, 1950-2015, tonnes bn

Yet just a few decades ago, almost all PPE was reusable, said Jodi Sherman, professor of anaesthesiology and epidemiology at Yale University. That changed in the 1980s when the medical devices industry recognised the moneymaking potential of single-use disposable products, she explained. 

“The more stuff you throw away, the more you have to buy, so it’s an advantageous business model for things not to be durable,” Prof Sherman said.

Now the vast majority of protective equipment is disposable, manufactured far from the point-of-use and delivered just in time to limit the need for warehousing and to ensure supplies do not expire.

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The World Health Organization projected that PPE supplies would need to increase by 40 per cent monthly to meet demand during the pandemic, including an estimated 89m masks, 76m pairs of gloves and 1.6m pairs of goggles. Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm, has predicted that the US could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months.

But governments are only now beginning to reflect on where these millions of products will end up. 

The UK’s health and social care department said it was unable to say how the 2bn pieces of protective equipment it procured would be disposed of, but that it was looking into effective alternatives to the single-use model. 

Much of Europe’s waste is shipped to countries such as Indonesia and Turkey, which Ms Sutherland of A Plastic Planet described as the “worst of waste imperialism”.  

Personal protective equipment discarded on the streets of the Lebanese capital Beirut © Patrick Baz/AFP

Hazardous medical waste is often incinerated on site in many western countries to prevent the transmission of infectious disease — a process that can lead to the release of toxic pollutants. 

“Other than burning them, there is nothing really we can do. It’s designed to be waste,” said Sander Defruyt, head of the plastics team at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity founded by the British yachtswoman.

But as a growing number of ordinary citizens follow governmental guidance and don single-use protective equipment, PPE is also ending up in conventional waste streams or being dumped in the open air. 

According to a WWF report, even if only 1 per cent of masks are disposed of incorrectly, some 10m will end up in the natural environment a month, polluting rivers and oceans.

To exacerbate the problem, the global Covid-19 lockdown has disrupted waste management systems around the world and led to drastic reductions in the price of plastics. 

Even before oil prices crashed this year, prices of the most common plastics were at multiyear lows, largely due to oversupply. Prices for high-density polyethylene have slumped by almost half since the start of 2018, according to S&P Global Platts, while prices for polypropylene are down by more than one-third. And since mid-2019, recycled PET has been more expensive than its virgin counterpart.

Line chart of $ per tonne showing Recycled plastic has become more expensive than virgin materials

Meanwhile, policies to curb the use of plastics have been placed on the backburner. Several governments have delayed single use plastic bans amid concerns around the transmission of Covid-19, including the UK and Portugal.

Finding a solution to the plastic boom during and after the pandemic will require a joint effort between manufacturers and policymakers to rethink and regulate the entire lifecycle of products, experts say. 

A Plastic Planet has been producing 1m plastic free protective mask made of recyclable and biodegradable parts per week and has distributed them around the world, including in hair salons and restaurants.

Reusing PPE is another option. Professor Sherman at Yale said that for most medical equipment, there was no evidence that patients were safer with single use items than reusable ones.

Since government and corporate action to cut PPE waste has been limited in recent months, searching for recyclable or reusable equipment is the best option available to consumers looking to reduce their plastic footprint, environmentalist say.

Ms Barrera, the fisherwoman, believes everyone must work together if the world is to turn the tide on plastic waste.

“Populations and governments are the only ones that can stop this,” she said. “We need to opt for products that are more ecological and sustainable and prohibit the use of single-use plastics.”

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