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PPE Pollution

BEACH LITTER During a May 2020 cleanup event, medical face masks were found on a Hong Kong beach. ANTHONY WALLACE—AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Zoë Trisha Prinsloo sees lots of plastic waste. The teenager hosts beach cleanups in Cape Town, South Africa. Prinsloo has picked up plastic bottles, straws, and more. Lately, she has noticed an increase in one type of trash. It’s from PPE (personal protective equipment). Her group, Save a Fishie!, saw “eight different kinds of gloves” during a cleanup in 2020. “I find masks more and more regularly, too,” she told TIME for Kids.

People everywhere are wearing PPE. It helps protect against COVID-19. But when PPE is not disposed of properly, it pollutes the environment and endangers wildlife. Environmentalists environmentalist PW environmentalist JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP—GETTY IMAGES a person who cares about the environment and takes steps to protect it (noun) Young environmentalists, such as Greta Thunberg, are making a big difference in the world. and others are concerned about this growing problem.

Plastic Problem

At least 8 million tons of plastic enter oceans each year. That’s according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This waste now includes more PPE. Experts say that up to 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used each month.

In September 2020, the Ocean Conservancy conservancy PW conservancy CONSTANTINE JOHNNY—GETTY IMAGES a group or area that protects the environment and Earth's natural resources (noun) The land was donated to a local conservancy. held its yearly International Coastal Cleanup. Participants found tens of thousands of PPE items. George Leonard is the group’s chief scientist. “PPE waste is a significant threat to oceans and marine life,” he told CNN.

PPE waste threatens other wildlife too. Sue Schwar manages South Essex Wildlife Hospital. It’s in the United Kingdom. Recently, her team cared for a seagull. “The loops of a face mask were bound around its legs,” Schwar says. The staff untangled the bird. It healed and was set free.

ANIMALS AT RISK Seagulls pick up a discarded face mask in Dover, England, in August 2020.


Do Your Part

PPE will be common until the pandemic ends. But there are steps you can take to reduce its environmental impact.

Wear clean reusable masks. If you’re using a disposable one, Schwar suggests snipping the straps before throwing it out. This will prevent wildlife from getting tangled in them. Toss the mask in a garbage can with a secure lid.

With adult permission, you can join cleanup events like Prinsloo’s. “My main goal is to constantly remove anything and everything I can off our beaches,” she says.