PPE adding to oceans' plastic burden
It comes as a growing number of countries encourage or order their citizens to wear face coverings in public -- once seen as a personal preference with minimal benefit, but now the preferred guidance in the US and much of Europe.
And while the moves are important from a public health perspective, one immediate impact is clear on streets around the world.
"Right outside my house there are discarded gloves and masks all over the neighborhood," says John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA.
PPE has become an additional threat to the world's oceans, which have been choking under the weight of plastic at a rapidly increasing rate.
Global plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades, a 2019 study found, with its authors warning that if that trend continues, the making of plastics will make up 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. By comparison, all of the world's forms of transportation now account for 15% of emissions.
Other studies have estimated that some 8 million tons of plastic trash leak into the ocean annually, with the rate getting worse every year.
But PPE presents very unique problems. "The structure of PPE will make it particularly hazardous for marine life," says Hocevar. "Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example. The straps on masks can present entangling hazards."
Over time, those products break down and add to the vast collections of microplastics in our seas, air and food. And the irony is that, while we produce and discard plastic to fight one public health crisis, we may be slowly contributing to another.
A number of restrictions on single-use plastics have been paused or rolled back as authorities scramble to fight the crisis.
In the UK, a much heralded charge on plastic bags has been suspended. A ban on such items has been put on hold in US states such as Maine, while retailers including Starbucks have banned reusable products to protect against the spread of Covid-19.
The pattern has prompted concern from organizations including the World Bank. "These measures have all been announced as temporary, but how long will they stick, fed by anxiety around health concerns?" Grzegorz Peszko, a lead economist at the organization, asked in a blog post last month.
"As Covid-19 hits, it seems to be shifting the tide toward single-use plastics," Peszko concluded.
Driving that concern is a feeling among conservationists that the plastics industry is seizing its moment to capitalize on public health concerns by promoting the use of its products.