The New Plastic Waste: Gloves and Masks Protecting Humans and Threatening Environment

Deepak Bhatt
6 min readApr 15, 2021

The invisible enemy has not yet set us free. It’s been one year since we are constantly fighting with the COVID-19 pandemic and nobody knows how prolonged it will be.

Millions of people have been affected and thousands have lost their life. Not only humans COVID is leaving a severe effect on nature as well. On one hand, PPE kits and gloves have persistently safeguarded many untold lives during a pandemic but on the other hand, they are creating pollution worldwide. Streets, landfills, sewage systems, and oceans are littered by the influx of harmful plastic. Gloves and hand sanitizer bottles are found on sea beds and washed up on beaches.

The first lockdown seemed to be very favorable for rivers, seas, and oceans as water quality improved to a great level. Out of 36 monitoring units placed at various points of the Ganga River, 27 were found suitable for bathing and propagation of wildlife and fisheries. But the experience of a scuba diver who went for the first clean-up along with four others depicts a different story. When Subhash Chandran went for the first underwater clean-up along with four other divers at Rushikonda beach in Visakhapatnam they found surgical and cloth masks floating. They removed over 1500 Kg of waste over three rounds. Even in Mumbai’s Juhu Beach around 10,000 masks and 1,050 gloves and PPE kits were discarded along the coastline.

According to the World Health Organization, the world needs 89 million plastic medical masks and 1.6 million protective goggles. They are made of polypropylene and may take 500 years to degrade in the ocean. Can you imagine what impact will this huge usage of plastic leave on our environment?

Reasons For Tremendous Rise In COVID Waste

· With the increase in the number of COVID cases each day, the use of masks and gloves is increasing on daily basis.

· We do not have any alternative of mask and gloves as this life-threatening virus is highly infectious.

· People are littering them on streets, in shopping malls, grocery shops, and anywhere they feel like.

· These littered wastes through wind or rain reach rivers, seas, lakes and make their way to oceans thereby polluting them.

· Inadequate and lack of systematic disposal of single used mask and gloves.

· People are not seriously following the government protocol of disposing of gloves and masks from the household.

· Illegal dumping of biomedical waste by hospitals, laboratories, and nursing homes.

· Unawareness about the reusable mask.

Threats Of COVID Pollution

Just imagine how many people in the world are every day using masks and gloves. If each one disposes of them in this manner what environmental hazards it can create are hard to define. Some of its harmful effects are:

1. Effect Of COVID Waste On Marine Animals — Single-use masks are made of polypropylene. It is a fossil fuel-derived plastic that takes years to break down. They also shed harmful microplastic into waterways. They are often consumed by fish and then by us. They are a serious threat to marine species. They are harmful to aquatic lives and make marine food unsafe. Fishes get trapped in gloves. Masks were also found in some animal’s stomachs. Many such incidents were reported across the world. Animals get trapped, entangled, and swallow this COVID waste that is life-threatening for them.

2. Hazardous For Humans And Other Street Animals — The discarded masks are a great risk for spreading coronavirus in waste collectors, litter pickers, and others who come in contact across the litter. The virus can survive on the surgical mask for seven days. There are very high chances of spreading coronavirus because of this. Even the street animals like dogs; cows can eat masks and gloves as they many times misinterpret plastic. They may get choked or it may enter their stomach causing them health problems.

3. Adding To The Pollution — With such a huge population and pandemic at its peak, the increased usage of single-use gloves and masks is a threat to the environment. Already humans have polluted the environment to a great extent and on top of it pandemic has added one more stuff to it. With the lack of a proper disposing and recycling system, the COVID waste will leave a worse effect on the entire ecosystem.

Ways To Control COVID Pollution

To protect the environment ensuring safe handling, proper segregation, and waste disposal has become a must. Incompetent disposal of biomedical waste can lead to the environmental transmission of disease through sewage, surrounding soil, groundwater, and waterbodies. We need to have effective strategies to overcome this.

· The use of reusable masks must be promoted. People must be motivated for using reusable masks as they are environment friendly. You can easily wash and reuse cloth masks again and again. Washing them properly disinfects them and reduces biomedical waste. Many people have already switched to cloth masks instead of plastic ones. The more people use these the lesser will be biomedical waste.

· Even if you use a single-use mask and want to change while traveling or on the way. Use a separate bag to keep the used mask instead of throwing it anywhere.

· Separate bins for gloves and masks on street must be placed. This will help in reducing the litter on the streets. People must be strictly informed to follow the protocols about disposable single-use masks and gloves. They should be penalized if found littering the streets with COVID waste.

· Follow the guideline to dispose of the mask from the household. You need to keep them separate for 72 hours and then cut them into small pieces to prevent reuse.

· Advertising and making people aware of the harmful effects of COVID waste on the environment. Media plays a vital role here. TV channels and social media platforms must timely advertise about how animals and water bodies are getting affected by this. This will create awareness among people that how destructive their carelessness can be. Government has to take a stand for this. The way the use of masks and gloves is promoted in a similar way the effects of littering them must be advertised.

· 70 percent of marine litter is a result of waste mismanagement on land. There needs to be a proper and separate collection and disposal system for masks and gloves at the source. States like Kerala and Goa have a better segregation system than other states. They must be collected in separate double-lined labelled and sealed bags. Hospitals must follow the protocol of decontaminating them before disposal to reduce the risk of spreading infection.

· There is a need to keep a check on the disposal of biomedical waste from hospitals. Hospitals have to pay recyclers and it is not lucrative enough for them. Many hospitals are been found doing illegal dumping. The state pollution boards need to take action against such violations. These hospitals must be strictly penalized for this.

· Installing incinerators and related infrastructure to treat biomedical waste. With the rise in this waste, the government must have a separate budget to install large capacity incinerators in cities where COVID waste is increasing gradually.

To Sum Up

Our oceans cover three fourth surface of the earth. 50 percent of the oxygen that we need to survive is produced by oceans and they are a large carbon sink. It’s the home of thousands of water species. Therefore, it becomes our duty to protect oceans, our ecosystem, and our nature as it an inseparable part of human life. This is just the beginning if some corrective measures are not taken timely it is going to be disastrous for all. Unless each of us takes responsibility and feels that we have to dispose of COVID waste properly we won’t be able to overcome this issue.

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Deepak Bhatt

Group Senior Vice President, Gujarat at BW Businessworld, Ex. Head, Communication, PR & Digital Marketing IIM Ahmedabad, 🎓 Alumnus IIM Calcutta, Stanford GSB