It’s another sad reality of the COVID-19 era that some of the steps we’re taking to stay safe and combat the coronavirus spread are often in opposition to hard-fought efforts to curb the use of plastics for a cleaner planet. Early in the pandemic, as the use of reusable items was scaled back for fear of the virus spreading via objects, planned plastic bag bans were rolled back or postponed across the country. What’s more, an entirely new form of plastic pollution has surged—waste from PPE, or personal protective equipment—and we’re just starting to understand its impact.
PPE waste was mostly anecdotal in the early stages of the pandemic, but now the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group, has concrete data based on waste collection trends by individuals around the world. Anyone can download the group’s app, Clean Swell, and log the items they pick up on beaches and coastlines—and since July 2020, the app has contained a new PPE category. In the six months between July and December, according to a new report published by the group, users reported a total of 107,219 items of PPE waste collected.