The Growing Waste & Recycling Problems from PPE, Masks, and COVID-19

The Growing Waste & Recycling Problems from PPE, Masks, and COVID-19

**This article was originally published October 2020 and has been updated.

More than 12 months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, we’re still dependent on those disposable blue “paper” masks. The world uses 129 billion per month, 3 million a minute, or 50,000 every second depending on how you frame it.

But what most of the world hasn’t pictured is the convergence of pandemicsbecause the masks we’ve relied on to dampen transmission aren’t just paper. They’re polypropylene too, the same plastic used for drinking straws and ketchup bottles.

As the world grapples with a glut of plastics in its soil, drinking water, and even the tip of Mt. Everest, we’re faced with a new mountain of a problem: trillions of discarded masks with virtually no solution to recycle them.

While no one could have predicted a pandemic or its many byproducts, without collective action and innovative thinking, we’ll be fighting personal protective equipment (PPE) long after the novel coronavirus is gone.

Safety First

On March 11, 2020, the WHO officially labeled COVID-19 a pandemic. By April, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had enough knowledge of the virus’s transmission to advise every citizen to wear a protective face covering and to keep hands clean.

Across the world, the majority of Earth’s 7.8 billion people sought out PPE like masks and latex gloves to safeguard themselves and their loved ones.

While some masks—namely the effective KN-95 variety—were in high demand and short supply, many were able to make do with homemade cloth masks or gardening gloves. It was also at this time that production of those often-blue, sometimes-yellow surgical masks reached overdrive in order to supply both frontline workers and the public.

They were cheap to produce and quickly delivered by the pallet and carton-load to be used and discarded as needed. Moreover, they were designed to be disposable. Due to the nature of the virus and ambiguity surrounding its lifespan on surfaces and outside the body, single-use equipment became vital for sterility.

However, nobody could have prepared for the volumes of waste that the improper disposal of these products would create. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, hospitals in Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, produced more than 240 tons of single-use plastic medical waste (such as disposable face masks, gloves, and gowns) per day at the peak of the pandemic—six times more than the daily average prior to the pandemic.

Recognizing the fact that nearly all PPE is designed with non-recyclable plastic, governments all over the world are aware it’s going to pile up. Compounding the issue, plastic was created to last a long time

So, the reality is those plastic-woven blue face masks will likely still be around—in the oceans, landfills, and hazmat repositories—through the next four "once-in-a-generation" pandemics unless we figure out a way to break them down. 

Know Your PPE

Understanding why we’re unable to recycle seemingly simple masks, sanitary gowns, and disposable gloves opens up into a larger problem.

Surgical face masks (classic blue): Three-ply construction with smooth cellulose, “melt-blown” polypropylene, and polyester layers, plus a metallic nose strip.

Sanitary gowns: Non-woven polypropylene, polyester, and/or polyethylene.

Disposable gloves: Plastic, latex, vinyl (PVC), or nitrile.

The problem here is that America’s current system of recycling, called “single-stream,” isn’t equipped to handle any of it. If you follow our blog, you’ll know that we’ve covered the drawbacks of a commingled process in depth.

[More from RoadRunner’s Waste Watchers blog: How to Recycle in America]

But each of these PPE presents a different challenge. The centerpiece of single-stream recycling, the materials recovery facility (MRF), uses conveyor belts, slides, grinders, air jets, and magnets to sort our all-in-one stream of plastics, paper, aluminum, glass, and more. 

However, in the case of face masks, even the most precise MRFs can’t separate the multi-material creation.

Gowns and gloves, meanwhile, are often made up of a collection of plastic materials—spanning almost all designated numbers—that commercial and curbside haulers reject. Plastic films (like those used in plastic bags), polyesters, and vinyls jam MRF machines and are so inexpensive to produce, most operators designate what makes it through to be deposited in the landfill.

Infographic showing a bar chart, calendar, scale, waves with plastic bottles, dollar bills, and oil barrels.

Problems with recycling plastic aren’t new—between 2015 and 2018, the U.S. only managed to recycle 8.7% of it. Echoing that, annual global production of plastics measures 380 million pounds (excluding the uptick in masks and PPE), and 91% is never recycled.

All this factored in, an additional concern with PPE—equipment designed to filter viral particles—is that the stream coming from hospitals and long-term care facilities is deemed Category B waste. It cannot even be sent through our inefficient MRFs, complicating our growing predicament.

Hypothetically assuming the pandemic that was declared March 2020 will end 18 months later, the world will have used an estimated 2,322,000,000,000 (that’s 2.32 trillion) masks—and with our current directives in place, less than 1% will have been recycled.

So, where will all the PPE go?

Facing New Challenges

With an overwhelming task before us, the world doesn’t have much of a plan, and overall guidance has been hard to come by. The EPA doesn’t want it in the environment, obviously, but it doesn’t want it in your recycling bin either—the US agency has directed us to put face masks in the trash. 

The WHO, meanwhile, hasn’t released updated guidelines for disposal but reiterates that medical PPE is single-use for a reason. Plus, there is no closed-loop system for mask recycling—a process doesn’t exist where masks can become new masks.

“Other than burning [PPE], there is nothing really we can do. It’s designed to be waste,” said Sander Defruyt, head of the plastics team at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 

With a lack of centralized guidance, confusion on where to discard used PPE has led to improper methods. Around the country—Pennsylvania, South Carolina, California, and Texas, among many other states—water utility authorities are urging residents to stop flushing masks down the toilet.

On that note, research suggests that there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean by 2050. But now, as the COVID-19 pandemic generates what some have referred to as a “new” type of plastic pollution, environmentalists fear we will soon run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in our oceans.

Once plastic enters the environment, it can take hundreds, or even thousands of years to decompose. Due to the nature of plastic, an estimated 79 percent of this material has already accumulated in our natural environment and landfills prior to the pandemic. 

However, that number is likely to increase in the near future due to the pandemic. A recent WWF report estimated that even if only one percent of masks are disposed of incorrectly, 10 million will end up in the natural environment per month.

Given these figures, environmentalists have good reason to be concerned about the risks that could arise from coronavirus waste and what else is to come. 

“When we talk about medical disposal in the environment during COVID-19, we tend to think about latex and vinyl gloves, which are not different to a plastic bag,” says Gerardo Peña, a marine biologist with Ninth Wave Global. “We also have masks which, due the great variety and amount, are almost impossible to assess in terms of direct damage on the environment. The polymeric, plastic-based masks will last decades before nature can find a way to get rid of them.”

That leaves it up to humans to reverse this crisis, and there is hope in the form of sustainable thinking and collaborative action.

Unmasking Possibilities

Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program suggests, “As we navigate the ongoing pandemic, we are at a crossroads: continue with business as usual despite colossal upheavals to our plastic waste reality, or take this opportunity to change the plastics paradigm and build better, stronger waste systems. The choice is obvious.” 

It’s clear to see that in many ways, the pandemic has exposed just how critical properly managing our waste and recycling truly is. 

Newly developed behaviors brought on by COVID-19 are contributing to the growing use of single-use plastics, effectively undoing the progress many businesses, cities, and states were making to reduce them prior to the pandemic—for instance, nearly all bans on plastic bags have been paused for cited safety concerns.

But the time is now for decisive action and unrestrained innovation. In following the 5Rs of recycling, your business can become a leader in the sustainable future beyond COVID-19. And you won’t be alone.

A green and blue wheel diagram with icons for natural resources, design, manufacturing, distribution, reuse & repair, and recycling.

While we wait on a national program or global-scale recovery mission, others have imagined what masks will become once they’ve left our faces:

• Researchers from RMIT University in Australia proposed assimilating discarded masks into the building of roads. A two-lane, 0.62-mile stretch of this plastic-laced pavement will use 3 million masks, keeping 93 tons of wearable polypropylene out of the landfill.

• A French company collected 70,000 masks last year, melding them into a new type of plastic called Plaxtil that can be made into visors and other products.

• The Venetian casino in Las Vegas pledged to recycle its employees’ masks into plastic decking and railroad ties.

Each of them is worth pursuing, but when possible, the best course of action may be avoiding those classic blues altogether. Highlighting one ingenious idea, a Dutch design firm is behind a biodegradable mask intended to be planted in the ground once discarded. Once buried, seeds embedded in the covering will sprout flowers.

It doesn’t need to be a complex choice, though—especially since countless companies pivoted to producing well-fitting cloth masks at the onset of the pandemic. The options are virtually endless, the material machine-washable, and the impact undeniable.

A recent study from the University College London found that, if every person in the United Kingdom used one single-use face mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tons of contaminated plastic waste and 10x more climate change impact than wearing reusable masks. 

However, even if your company is responsible with its PPE, there’s more that can be done.

PPE Meets EPR

The pandemic has amplified how ill-equipped the world is to deal with our own waste problems. As we navigate this unchartered territory, organizations and individuals must transform the way they manage their waste in order to make a lasting impact—without action, businesses risk creating irreversible damages to the environment and their own corporate image. 

Use this unforeseeable dark mark in human history as an opportunity to prioritize a revamp of your company’s waste systems, which affects not only the planet but the bottom line. 

[More from RoadRunner’s Waste Watchers blog: EPR = Extended Producer Responsibility]

We currently live in a society where everything is disposable, from plastic takeout containers to surgical masks and gloves. Our ecosystems can no longer keep up with this “take, make, waste” model—a linear supply chain—in which natural resources are extracted, turned into products, sold to consumers, and used until they are discarded. Undoubtedly, companies must break from the status quo and take responsibility for the lifecycle of their products.

By adapting to a more circular economy, businesses can design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.

Just like COVID-19, our waste, plastic, and PPE pandemics cannot be solved overnight. But knowing how to pivot to sustainability, responsibly dispose of waste, and recycle as much as humanly possible is half the battle—and RoadRunner Recycling is committed to being part of your company’s solution.

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