Personal Protective Equipment remains crucial for the fight against COVID-19, but comes with environmental impacts

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COVID-19 is taking its toll on the environment, in more ways than one — particularly through the use of PPE

hiker in a forest
Photo by Riley van der Linden

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) has risen sharply around the world.

PPE plays a critical role in reducing the spread of COVID-19 by protecting healthcare and other essential workers. PPE is neither biodegradable or recyclable, meaning that it exacerbates existing environmental issues by contributing to landfills and clogged oceans worldwide.

With the ongoing pandemic, plastics have seen a general uptick in usage due to their role in medical settings and personal healthcare measures. The Canadian government’s plan to ban single-use plastics starting 2021 has received some pushback from the petrochemical industry, who emphasize the need for single-use plastics for healthcare purposes.

The term “PPE” is defined by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the US as any “specialized clothing or equipment worn by an employee for protection against infectious materials.”

Emphasis is placed on the ability of PPE to create a physical barrier between healthcare workers and potentially infectious materials in the workplace.

PPE definitionally includes a range of materials that are predominantly made of plastic, including disposable gloves, medical gowns or aprons, masks or respirators, goggles, and face shields.  Other products, such as plastic face shields, are intended for longer-term use when proper sanitization procedures are followed.

Many businesses have also implemented plexiglass shields, a type of thermoplastic, to prevent virus transmission between employees and customers. Being more structurally resilient than other plastic subtypes, it is also more durable and can be used over an extended period of time.

In a 2010 study on the survival of coronavirus on healthcare PPE, researchers emphasized the single-use nature of PPE such as N-95 respirators. They recommended only reusing PPE in circumstances where adequate supplies “simply cannot be obtained.”

They also said no existing method can decontaminate PPE so that it can be used, as there is  “continued risk of transfer to the wearer during handling over multiple uses.”

And even without COVID-19, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic byproduct or waste pollutes oceans every year and results in long-term economic and environmental repercussions. Estimates before COVID-19 indicate medical supplies represented less than 5 per cent of waste. Although single-use plastics have the advantage of sterility and low manufacturing costs, they also end up in our landfills and oceans after use. 

Canadian environmentalists have since expressed concern for the rise in single-use plastics, especially as grocery stores and major outlets like Starbucks and Tim Hortons temporarily ceased the use of reusable cups in mid-March.

And while major players in the oil industry have been investing more in petrochemical production —  the plastics industry — for several years now, this process may be accelerated due to the increased demand for plastics and depreciated demand for oil.

Prior to the pandemic, many countries were moving towards official bans or measures to reduce plastic consumption. Now, some have criticized the plastic industry for capitalizing on COVID-19 as an opportunity to emphasize the crucial role of plastic materials in healthcare.

In a statement made on March 18th, 2020, the Plastic Industry Association requested the US Department of Human and Health Services “speak out against bans on single-use plastic products as a public safety risk.”

The document emphasized the role of single-use plastics in sanitary measures, stating that the continued implementation of any bans would potentially threaten the health and safety of consumers and workers.

In 2019, the federal government announced its intentions to ban “harmful” single-use plastics and reduce plastic-related pollution as early as 2021. Particular emphasis was placed on items such as plastic bags and food-related plastics like straws, but no specific mention of plastic use in healthcare or other medically-necessary contexts was made.

Dr. Robert Gifford, a professor at the University of Victoria and pioneer of environmental psychology, says that COVID has also impacted people’s perspectives towards addressing issues of climate change.

“The virus thing is much more into the short term term than climate change is,” he says, noting that other issues pertinent to climate change like sustainability or biodiversity are by contrast, much more longitudinal concerns that will take longer to resolve.

Gifford says there are two principle concepts that impede people from taking action for climate change: temporal and spatial discounting.

Temporal discounting refers to the idea that issues like climate change are more a future concern than a present one. Compared to concerns like COVID-19, they may then seem less urgent. Spatial discounting refers to the limits of perspective that people may have when considering larger scale issues like climate change. An individual may doubt the concept of rising global temperatures when their local climate appears to refute such a phenomenon, for instance.

Dr. Gifford also notes that while COVID-19 has resulted in an aggregate reduction of total pollution — resulting from reduced vehicle use, for instance. He adds that there is still much more work to be done before the long-term climate change crisis can be thoroughly addressed.

“Some of the experts that I know are saying, even if we stayed at the same level of transportation we are now, it’s about a third or a half of what we’d have to do to make an actual difference with climate change,” he says.