The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire world, killing millions of people and affecting everyone's way of life. There have been undeniable social and economic changes due to the pandemic and the issues with sustainability and the environment. These environmental issues can be primarily attributed to the rise in personal protective equipment (PPE) by citizens and increasingly in hospitals. The increased use of single-use PPE (personal protective equipment) such as masks and gloves has caused pollution. Single-use masks have particularly increased pollution. The WHO (World Health Organization), the ECDC (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control), as well as governments across the world have either recommended or required the use of face masks sometime during the pandemic, consequently increasing the amount of environmental pollution.
(Face mask imports to the 27 EU Member States from the rest of the world, January 2019 to September 2020 “Impacts of COVID-19 on Single-Use Plastic in Europe's Environment.” European Environment Agency)
As shown in the figure above, the imports of face masks to the EU have more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. This shows an average additional import of 0.75 face masks per person every day. Although public gloves were not recommended for general use by governments, there was still about an 80% increase in glove use.
The rise of these imports into the EU brought forth additional greenhouse gas emissions and many other types of pollution. The increased use of single-use face masks and gloves has had detrimental effects on the environment and global climate-related to resource extraction, production, transport, waste handling, and littering. Millions of discarded single-use plastics have been found littered throughout the streets, rivers, and sea, becoming a lethal threat to animals. Due to the danger face masks and gloves pose, they are now included within the items to report in marine litter monitoring. Since the beginning of the outbreak, the estimated amount of plastic waste is 1.6 million tonnes per day. It is estimated that approximately 3.4 billion single-use face masks are discarded daily. These face masks and gloves can release microplastics when exposed to weathering, ultraviolet radiation, and abrasion. The estimated greenhouse gas emissions related to face masks range from 14 to 33.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of masks, with the production and transport accounting for the largest share since most face masks are produced outside of the EU, with most being produced in China, causing a large cost of transportation fees for the face masks.
The increase of environmental and climate pollution due to COVID-19 has brought forth a desire in hospitals to reach sustainability. One way to reach sustainability in healthcare is through the recycling of used medical device products. The manufacturing process can also be made to be more sustainable by ensuring that the energy used is derived from clean and renewable sources. Another way to have more sustainable and eco-friendly healthcare is to have the goals for greater environmental awareness at the very beginning when designing the necessary product. For example, manufacturers should consider a simpler design that uses less wasteful materials and methods to minimize the environmental impact after disposal. All these examples and more are all ways in which we can rebuild our health infrastructure to better protect our planet.
"COVID-19: A Wake-Up Call for Sustainable Healthcare." Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry, 1 Sept. 2021, www.mddionline.com/design-engineering/covid-19-wake-call-sustainable-healthcare. Accessed 3 Nov. 2021.
"COVID-19 in Europe: increased pollution from masks, gloves and other single-use plastics." European Environmental Agency, 6 July 2021, www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/covid19-in-europe-increased-pollution. Accessed 3 Nov. 2021.
"COVID pollution: impact of COVID-19 pandemic on global plastic waste footprint." PubMed.gov, 20 Feb. 2021, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33655084/. Accessed 3 Nov. 2021.
"Impacts of COVID-19 on single-use plastic in Europe's environment." European Environmental Agency, 4 Aug. 2021, www.eea.europa.eu/publications/impacts-of-covid-19-on.