PPE: Your Protection vs. The Ocean’s Perpetrator 


Startling Statistics

Since the start of the pandemic, people have been using disposable face masks and other types of personal protective equipment (PPE) on a daily basis. These means of protection, although necessary, can be very costly for the environment and wildlife, specifically the marine environment. Since early 2020, 193 countries have generated 8.4 million tons of plastic related to the pandemic. About 25,900 tons of this pandemic plastic has ended up in the ocean. Contribution is spread across continents: 46% from Asia, 22% from North and South America, and 24% from Europe. The waste comes from PPE and packages and shipping materials used by people stuck in their homes while observing social distancing rules. About 4.7% of the pandemic plastic has been from packaging materials. PPE however, is still the main cause, as an estimated 1.56 million face masks have entered the ocean. 


Impact on Marine Life

With all of the excess plastic being dumped into the ocean, a multitude of consequences has emerged. Encounters between marine life and PPE can be very detrimental to animals and even cause death. In the Netherlands, researchers found a fish trapped in a medical glove. Also, birds were observed using face masks as nesting materials. By the end of the century, models predict that 28.8% of the plastic generated by the pandemic will end up on the seabed and that 70.5% of it will end up on beaches. In addition, if the amount of plastic being dumped into the ocean from the pandemic is not mitigated, it is estimated that 11 million tons of plastic will be disposed of—34,000 tons of it in the ocean. The images you have seen of large garbage patches taking over every aspect of marine environments are likely about to worsen since most of the pandemic plastic will end up floating in the great garbage patches.  



The PPE you use is made of different types of plastic polymers. These plastic polymers, once broken down, can contribute to the already large problem of microplastics in the ocean. The plastics break down to the point where they are invisible to the naked eye (hence the micro). Because the plastics are so small, they are consumed by marine life with other plants/animals that they eat. Consuming microplastics is harmful to any creature, and they can even get into the diets of humans too! 


What you can do

First and foremost, dispose of your mask and other PPE properly—do not just throw it on the ground! Cutting the ear loops of your mask before you throw it out can help, as the loops can endanger wildlife. You can also put all of your PPE in a tightly closed bag so garbage cannot escape. If you want to take it a step further, you can take action! Try and get involved with organizations that clean up beaches or even urge the government to make a change. Protect the environment from the materials that once protected you. 


Works Cited:

Cohen, Li. “More than 57 Million Pounds of PPE and Other Covid-Related Plastic Waste Have Polluted the Oceans since Pandemic Began, Study Finds.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 12 Nov. 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ppe-plastics-waste-polluting-ocean-covid-19-pandemic/. 

Peng, Yiming, et al. “Plastic Waste Release Caused by Covid-19 and Its Fate in the Global Ocean.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 23 Nov. 2021, https://www.pnas.org/content/118/47/e2111530118. 

“Pandemic Pollution .” Ocean Conservancy, Mar. 2021, https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/FINAL-Ocean-Conservancy-PPE-Report-March-2021.pdf.