Due to the international pandemic, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is being found in huge numbers throughout our Ocean and waterways. Read advice on what you can do to reduce your impact in this blog written by Matthew Norton, one of our Ocean Discovery Rangers at Ocean Conservation Trust.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) includes helmets, goggles, high visibility jackets and other items that keep all of us safe from accidents and injuries at work and in our everyday lives. The Covid-19 situation has made wearing PPE more important than ever with face masks and gloves being one of the most vital tools we have for protecting ourselves and those around us from the virus.

In the past few months, we have gone through hundreds of billions of disposable face masks and gloves worldwide to deal with this pandemic. But this had led to disposable masks, gloves and empty hand sanitiser bottles adding to the already growing mass of litter in the sea. The impact this disposed PPE can have on marine life is much the same as before. Bags, straws and random pieces of plastic are already being mistaken for food and it may happen again with masks, gloves and other PPE. And once the litter is in the stomach of a bird, fish or any other marine animal, it will be difficult to get it out again.

As well as the dangers to our wildlife, rubbish of any kind spoils the seas for everyone. No one wants to find a ton of rubbish on their favourite beach, or tread on something plastic as they wade in. And adding PPE to the mix is going to cause some understandable safety concerns for swimmers, similar to how we would feel if we stumbled on any other kind of medical waste.

The problem is unlikely to just go away as the disposable masks alone can take up to 450 years to break down. So, what can we do about it? The options we have are not that different to how we might deal with other types of litter.

Disposing of our single use masks and gloves correctly would certainly be better than nothing. But most PPE is unlikely to be recyclable because it is classified as medical waste (which is understandable) and will end up in landfill or burnt. A more desirable outcome would be to invest in reusable, and preferably non-plastic alternatives to single use items. With some types of PPE, particularly those with medical uses, this can be quite difficult. Few people would be happy with old and tatty PPE if their life depended on it. Still, it can and has been done with facemasks made of fabric and often customised to our own interests and preferences.

We have made great strides in reducing the pollution we cause before. The ban on microbeads and our reduced use of plastic bags were major wins. And reusable alternatives to plastic packaging and water bottles are becoming more popular as we all become more aware of the environmental benefits of these choices. We can do it again with face masks, gloves and other PPE so that the oceans do not have to pay a price for our health and safety.