In early 2020, as the United States and the rest of the world were coming to terms with the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that there was a growing need for personal protective equipment, or PPE.
Masks, gloves and face shields all were in high demand, something that continued throughout the year and into 2021.
It is estimated that more than 8.4 million tons of PPE plastic was created from February 2020 through October 2021. With some 26,000 tons of that plastic already in the world’s oceans, evidence of it is showing up along Central Florida’s beaches and waterways.
“There’s always that floating water bottle, you know, kind of sitting with the top poked up, bobbing along,” said Marty Lang, a kayaker on the Indian River Lagoon. “We see the occasional face mask, not that many gloves, but the occasional face mask. Just somebody, I guess, got out of the car and chucked it on the ground.”
Since the start of the pandemic, it has become common to spot used face masks and gloves in parking lots and along the street, mixed with other litter. The problem, according to experts, is the fact that the PPE is another layer of plastic waste that is ending up in the water.
“Plastics are very versatile. There’s seven different types of plastics today, and different types are more usable for different applications,” said Rachel Dial of PureCycle, an Orlando-based plastics recycling company. “While the PPE mask played a critical part during this pandemic, they protected people from the virus, it is made out of plastic; so with the pandemic, you saw the generation of plastic increase substantially.”
In October, a study by the University of California San Diego found that the majority of the PPE plastic found its way either onto beaches or into the seabed, finding that “this poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean environment and is mainly accumulated on beaches and coastal sediments.”
“The pandemic did accentuate the plastic waste crisis, as it already exists,” Dial said.
While companies like PureCycle can recycle much of the PPE plastic, the problem is that end users of the plastic must choose to have it recycled, versus throwing it away or discarding it on the ground. Moreover, the study by UCSD found while individual users did contribute to waste, it was hospitals worldwide that accounted for more than 70% of the plastic waste from PPE.