A Messy Situation: The Environmental Costs of Protective Gloves and Face Masks

To help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect themselves, many people are wearing face masks and/or protective gloves. Unfortunately, discarded gloves and face masks are not always disposed of properly and it’s having a negative impact on the environment.

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Image: Swissinfo

Scientists and environmentalists are reporting that over the last few months, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of pollutants found in the ocean. And with millions of masks and gloves being used every day, the problem is only getting worse. People do need to protect themselves from the virus, and many experts say protective gear helps, but we should not forget about our planet while doing so.

Discarded Masks and Gloves Are Showing Up In the Oceans

As of now, around 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. The overwhelming majority of it is non-biodegradable. In total, scientists estimate that there around 150 million tons of it floating around. So even before the coronavirus pandemic, pollution in the ocean was a major problem.

Millions of masks and gloves are being manufactured and worn every single day. One American manufacture disclosed that it produces about 50 million masks a month. In France, authorities recently ordered two billion masks.

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Image: Inside Waste

One study estimated that in the UK, if people wore one mask a day for a year, then it would add over 100 tons of waste. Of course, we need to protect ourselves, but the problem is that a lot of the waste from the protective gear is not being disposed of properly.

The Other Negative Environmental Effects of the Pandemic

It’s true that due to social distancing measures and the lockdowns, people have not been traveling as much lately, thus emission levels have drastically plummeted. But this doesn’t mean the virus is good for the environment in general. In adding to the pollution caused by protective gear, the virus has also put an abrupt pause to many recycling programs – governments just can’t focus on the environment right now.

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Image: CoRona 24 News

Also, beyond the improperly discarded masks and gloves, due to so many people being in hospitals, there has been a huge surge in the amount of medical waste. Import and export have also globally slowed down, which results in tons of food and perishable items going to waste. All in all, the environmental benefits of COVID-19 are totally eclipsed by the negative effects.

What Can We Do About It?

To help combat the surge in pollution, you can first and foremost do all the things you’ve always done to live a greener life. That means recycle everything you can. When possible, ride a bike or walk instead of driving. Buy local produce and limit your use of plastic packaging. Volunteer at an environmental organization. Stay informed about environmental science and climate change.

When it comes to masks and gloves, use them for a safe duration. Of course, don’t wear a mask if it’s been worn passed its period of effective, but always aim to use the entire period. And importantly, make sure you dispose of them properly and as always, don’t litter!