Study finds increase in PPE litter due to COVID-19

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It’s no secret that use of personal protective equipment (PPE) has increased during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). With that increase in use, however, has come a jump in litter related to the virus, according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, analyzes the emergence of PPE and COVID-19 related litter in 11 countries over 14 months using the litter collection app, Litterati. Three types of items were studied: masks, gloves, and wipes. The information was gathered between September 2019 to October 2020.

According to researchers, litter from masks increased nearly 84 percent from before the pandemic. Gloves and wipes, more prevalent at 0.2 percent of litter before the pandemic, doubled to 0.4 percent, but those numbers have since fallen. Glove litter increased in the initial stages of the pandemic but fell after the introduction of facemask policies, whereupon there was an increase of facemask litter. 

The United Kingdom showed the highest overall proportion of masks, gloves, and wipes as litter. For August to October 2020, masks accounted for more than five percent of all litter, with gloves and wipes present at 1.5 percent respectively. 

The study also looked at how national policies on mask-wearing and travel restrictions impacted COVID-19 related litter. Researchers found that mask-wearing policies had a clear impact on PPE litter, with masks showing the most response with 0.01 percent on average before legislation but increasing thereafter. Gloves showed an increase two months before legislation but decreasing after national mask-wearing policies. Wipes levels are variable throughout the study, according to researchers.

Led by Keiron P. Robert, Ph.D, lecturer at the School of Civil Engineering & Surveying at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, the study focused on the countries Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

For practitioners, this study could prompt practice management discussions around proper PPE disposal.