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Throwing away personal protective equipment could have lasting impact

Posted at 4:56 PM, Nov 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-29 19:56:34-05

KERN COUNTY, Calif. — When you toss something in the trash, it’s easy to immediately forget about it but experts say we need to be thinking about the lasting impacts that stem from throwing PPE away

“We do have capacity in our landfills right now, but as we continue to generate, at least, a group of researchers out there have suggested we’re now producing about [2.5] million tons per month while usually we’re producing 5 million tons a year," said Anastasia Telesetsky.

Telesetsky teaches law and environmental policy at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. When it comes to personal protective equipment, she said these items are harmful to the environment if discarded improperly.
Animals can get tangled in face masks or mistake gloves for food.
But concerns don’t end when these items do make into the trash can.

“They don’t break down, I mean, these are kind of, from the perspective of human lives, these are forever products. These are 400 year products," said Telesetsky.

She said most PP has a lot of plastic, and from individuals wearing them to the store to hospitals providing all employees with these items, the pandemic has significantly impacted our landfills.

“At the rate we’ve been going, we have a lot of landfills that are entering so-called retirement. So we have ten to fifteen years left of these landfills," said Telesetsky.

And while we can make more, Telesetsky said, at some point, the question will be: where?

“Who wants to live next door to one?," she said.

Cal Poly soil ecology professor Seeta Sistla said with single-use PPE items, 129 billion face masks and 69 billion gloves are being added to our waste streams.

“We are swimming in plastic waste. We have plastic waste that is embedded into pretty much all aspects of our environment," said Sistla.

Sistla said many don’t realize we are currently living in a “plastic era.”

“The PPE explosion is in itself a problem, but also highlights this overarching issue of plastic waste that is in our land and waterways, and is going to fundamentally affect every one of us on Earth because they don’t decompose," she said.

So why does this matter now and in the future?

“The incineration of plastics causes the release of dioxins which is a toxin into the atmosphere. Plastics are also known for causing carcinogenic effects and to act as an endocrine disruptor," said Sistla.

Sistla said these plastics can have a major impact on your physical health, and she hopes the pandemic is a wake up call.

To make a positive difference, the two professors said instead of wearing gloves, practice a lot of hand washing and switch from disposable to reusable face masks.

“Reuse your PPE. Disinfect it and reuse it. Be savvy. Be savvy about your use of plastics," said Telesetsky.

Telesetsky said she hopes people will be mindful of any plastic they use, not just today, but in the long run.

“This is kind of, this is our legacy," she said. "A bunch of masks and gloves, you know, when an archaeologist goes to open up a landfill."