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A timeline of PPE in the plastic pollution discussion

A timeline of PPE in the plastic pollution discussion

3 min read

Last March, PPE (personal protective equipment) was not common jargon in widespread public discussion. Now, over a year and a half after COVID-19 "hit" the United States, PPE is in the everyday vernacular - and the ramifications of its constant usage have also emerged in the broader plastic pollution fight.

This week we took a look back in time: scaling our search back all the way to January 2020, combing for articles tying together PPE and plastic pollution. Unsurprisingly, there was little out there: but more unexpectedly, there was nothing at all.

PPE before the pandemic did look a little different. While today we may think almost exclusively of PPE as items we can use to protect ourselves from the virus, the concept has been around much longer with professions that do require one to constantly be in harm's way. Construction, mechanical, electrical, and radiological work all employ equipment to protect oneself: the difference being that many of these items - hard hats, safety glasses, shoes, respirators, coveralls, vests, etc. - are largely reusable.

Still, if we look at the health care world pre-pandemic, plastic gloves and disposable masks have been mainstays in many hospitals and clinics for decades. Disposable, plastic-based PPE has been around since before March of 2020. The fact that no news articles, studies, or opinion pieces show up in those three months prior to U.S. COVID-19 at all demonstrates a lack of attention in the area of PPE's contribution to plastic pollution: to put it colloquially, we had bigger fish to fry.

Then, on April 2, 2020, an article appeared: the first mentions of PPE and plastic usage in a discussion that (spoiler alert) has since exploded. Naturally, at this stage in the pandemic, innovators were looking for defenses against coronavirus and ways to help frontline workers. The third article in this screengrab - "Waste plastic could save lives of medical staff" - looks at plastic waste as a way to combat the pandemic, not as a consequence.

This was the start of April 2020: four stories connecting PPE with plastic pollution. Now let's look at what has happened since then:

In the last year and a half, there have been roughly one thousand articles written and published on the connections between PPE and plastic pollution. The tune of these articles have changed: as our fight against the pandemic has worn on and some relief has been given with the availability of vaccines, our attention has turned to the mess that disposable PPE has left behind.

"Up next, pandemic of garbage" - an article posted by the Manila Times in August 2020, sums up new realizations perfectly: in our perseverance and fight to combat COVID-19, we've left in our wake a monstrous contribution to the plastic pollution crisis. And our use of disposable face masks and other items haven't slowed: value-sized packs of face masks are now commonplace on store shelves and in our homes. Personal protective equipment used to be found only in specific professions that required protection against hazard exposures: now, we all face new hazards. PPE has become part of our normal.

Innovators across the globe are working to find ways to cut down on our disposable plastic PPE usage. While the issue may not yet improve, our awareness has at least shifted. This new awareness has not left health care behind - out off all of these stories, over a quarter of them are related to PPE plastic pollution within the health care sector.

That colorful network of news articles is now lit up green as it shows the breadth of articles discussing PPE plastic pollution within the health care sector. Health care plastic pollution pops up in a variety of different "categories" - from discarded face masks to plastic waste to COVID-19 - demonstrating that the sector at the very frontline of battling this virus is also at the frontline of the PPE plastic pollution. A logical place for a sector that so rapidly uses disposable PPE to protect its workers and patients: but now we must ask the question, how can the health care sector work to reduce the rate of this shocking amount of waste?

Scientists, doctors, nurses, and other employees in the sector are working on solutions to this issue. Sustainability in health care comes in many forms: the waste of disposable PPE is just one of them, a relatively new phenomenon in its magnitude as we've been struck with and had to respond to a virus with impacts previously unseen in our modern era.

These articles just go to serve as a reminder that we're fighting more than one pandemic. Action against plastic pollution is being taken, but it needs to be broader. Join the fight.

About the author(s):

Gwen Ranniger

Gwen Ranniger is the former Communications and Engagement Manager at Environmental Health Sciences.

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