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COVID Waste is Harming the Environment. Here’s How to Limit Single-Use Masks and PPE.

One of the lasting images of the COVID-19 pandemic will be the site of PPE (personal protective equipment) discarded on the side of the road. Another lasting image will be walking by neighbours’ houses on garbage day and seeing recycling bins full of plastic takeout containers or Amazon packaging.

This waste is having a huge impact on our environment. Plastic medical supplies, including face masks, are some of the main culprits.

Over 300 million tons of plastic is produced every year globally. Half of the plastic produced is used in single-use items such as shopping bags, straws or drinking containers. Plastic is not biodegradable and therefore wreaks havoc on the environment for hundreds of years.

covid-19 mask on sidewalk

Effect on plastic on marine life

Plastics can have a devastating effect on marine life. According to the UN, 800 or more ocean species are impacted by debris, 80% of which is plastic. Between 8 and 13 million metric tons of plastic is thrown in the ocean every year. This is the same as a garbage truck full of plastic being dumped into the ocean every minute.

Fish, seabirds and ocean-dwelling mammals can get tangled up in plastic debris. They also often mistake plastic for prey and ingest it, causing suffocation, starvation or drowning. Plastic waste kills up to a million seabirds a year. Sea turtles have an increased risk of dying from ingesting just 14 pieces of plastic over their lifespan. Plastic also breaks down into tiny particles which find their way into the seafood we eat.

Effect of plastic on climate change

Plastic lasts for a long time in the environment. It often sticks around for 400 years or more and throughout its life, even after being thrown out, it creates greenhouse gases. Plastic comes from materials, such as ethylene and propylene, that are made from fossil fuels.

Extracting, transporting and refining these fuels, along with the manufacturing process of plastic, creates billions of tons of greenhouse gases. 4% of the world’s petroleum produced every year is used to make plastics.

A report by the Centre for International Environmental Law concluded that plastic production will produce 189 coal-fired power stations worth of greenhouse gases. Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050. By that point, it will be responsible for up to 13% of our planet’s total carbon budget – equivalent to 615 power stations.

Other negative effects of plastic

Impacts on food and healthWhen plastics break down, microplastics find their way into tap water and food that humans consume.

Impacts on tourism – With all of the plastic ending up in the ocean, beaches around the world are being covered with washed-up plastic products. This ruins the aesthetic of these beautiful beaches, damaging the tourist industries of often poorer countries.

COVID-19 supplies’ effect on the environment

Environmental groups have been sounding the alarm on so-called “COVID waste”. Gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer have been found in seas and oceans across the world. It is not uncommon to walk by a mask lying on the sidewalk in cities as well.

Face masks are now ubiquitous across the world as economies attempt to reopen safely. But these masks are called “ecological time bombs” by activists, with a lifespan of about 450 years. The Hong Kong-based group OceansAsia surveyed a Hong Kong island and found dozens of disposable masks – and this island is actually uninhabited and some distance from the mainland. OceansAsia is worried that porpoises and dolphins could easily mistake a face mask for its food, killing them.

The situation does not look to be getting any better. One study estimated in the UK that if every person used a single-use mask every day for a year, it would produce 66,000 tons of waste and 57,000 tons of plastic packaging. This would cause 10 times the climate change impact of using reusable masks.

The Asian Development Bank projects that Manila, Philippines is producing an extra 309 tons of medical waste daily. This is an amount of waste that no city in the world has the ability to deal with.

Plastic surgical masks, shields and gloves are not the only products causing plastic waste. N95 masks have plastic straps and they are usually shipped in individual plastic containers to protect their integrity. With online food and shopping orders increasing, single-use plastic packaging has increased greatly during the pandemic.

Solutions to COVID-19 waste

One solution to reducing waste in this time is for individuals to be more conscious of their environmental footprint. This could include measures such as recycling more, not using single-use packaging, ordering food from environmentally-conscious restaurants that use non-plastic packaging.

Individuals can also try to reuse their masks – here’s an article on how to do that. But the effect that individuals can have only goes so far.

Large businesses and hospitals should be thinking about reducing waste given that they use so many supplies on a daily basis. They can try to enforce employees’ behaviour, but to make an even bigger impact, businesses and healthcare facilities should make institutional changes. One innovative solution for these institutions is to use technology to clean and reuse their mounds of PPE.

covid-19 mask cleaning machine

Mobile mask cleaning services

SteriRight’s technology reduces the environmental hazards of masks and PPE by safely cleaning them for reuse. SteriRight brings mobile face mask reprocessing and decontamination services to local businesses. The high-tech machines that SteriRight uses a hybrid approach combining UVC, hydrogen peroxide and ozone to kill highly-resistant pathogens like the novel coronavirus.

Using SteriRight’s services means fewer masks going into landfills or even clogging up the sewage system. Sanitizing face masks for reuse can also save companies money, time and headaches trying to obtain new face masks during a time when there is a large shortage.

Not only is this process effective and environmentally-friendly, but it’s extremely fast. SteriRight’s machine can sanitize hundreds of masks per hour. Masks are loaded into a tray which is placed on a conveyor belt. The entire process is completed in less than a minute.

So how do you access this great technology? Simply call SteriRight or fill out a contact form to set up a time for us to visit.

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