Plastic pollution amidst the pandemic

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Tanna van Niekerk

It is a huge priviledge to welcome Tanna van Niekerk who is a research assistant working for Sustainable Seas Trust (SST) - a charitable trust and non-profit organisation involved in research, education and social upliftment to sustain the environment, particularly the seas. Together with her colleagues, Tanna conducts litter surveys to gather data on the amounts and types of litter in the environment. These data will enable SST to help decision-makers implement action-plans and partnerships to alleviate plastic pollution. A big welcome to the Trading Post!

Plastic pollution amidst the pandemic

Personal protective equipment, more simply known as PPE, includes protective items such as surgical gloves, surgical or single-use masks, and face shields. These items are made from different types of plastics that are designed specifically for the purpose of protection from infectious diseases which are spread through contact with bodily fluids or inhalation (breathing in droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough). A large proportion of PPE is single-use and therefore a significant percentage is discarded after using the item once, increasing the chances for inappropriate disposal.

Until recently, these items were rarely seen outside of hospitals and other professional health care practices. However, since the start of the global pandemic, COVID-19, these protective items have become common in the environment. The increase in usage and need for PPE is related to the way in which the COVID-19 virus spreads via respiratory droplets from infected airways. These respiratory droplets can be transmitted directly from one individual to another through close contact or inhalation. The droplets can also settle on surfaces (due to coughing or sneezing) and be transmitted through indirect contact when the surface is touched prior to touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

Many citizens are inappropriately discarding their single-use gloves and masks in the streets, parking lots and water ways. The material from which many of these items are made is extremely light in weight, allowing for strong winds – very much like our winds in Port Elizabeth — to pick these items up and spread them everywhere. This problem, however, is by no means isolated to Port Elizabeth or even South Africa as a whole. The issue of PPE litter stretches far and wide, affecting even first-world countries such as America, the UK and Australia. Many concerned citizens from these places have taken to social media to voice their concerns and plea for fellow citizens to discard their PPE in a responsible manner.

Besides the issue of litter being visually displeasing, there is a possibility of these items posing great health risk to the public. If the person who discarded the mask, gloves or other protective items happened to be infected with the COVID-19 virus or had come into contact with the virus, it puts everyone else exposed to those items in danger of contracting the disease. A good citizen could think they are helping this situation by picking up the discarded PPE and disposing of it correctly when they could in fact be exposing themselves to the virus. In addition to the previously mentioned problems surrounding litter, it could also negatively affect the environment around it through the release of harmful chemicals, entangling and killing wildlife, lower the value of surrounding estates as well as burdening the economy with the expense of clean ups.

Plastic pollution as a result of incorrect PPE disposal, has been an unexpected but serious by-product of the global pandemic. We will be left with the aftermath of the PPE plastic pollution long after the lockdown ends. Although we could all make an effort to collect and correctly dispose of the littered PPE after the pandemic has passed, many of the items will be buried or hidden; potentially leaving them to break down into smaller pieces and pollute the environment for decades to come.   

What you can do...

As PPE material usually is not recyclable, our advice is to dispose of gloves, masks, visors, and even wet wipes in a sealed rubbish bin or bag. However, the items should be either disinfected or left for at least three days, but preferably five days, to ensure there are no active viruses left on these items by the time the garbage is collected or handled again. This precaution allows for the protection of anyone who encounters your refuse such as waste pickers, municipal workers, curious children, or vagrants. Besides staying at home and social distancing, you can also contribute to lessening the spread of the pandemic and help us move forward in a positive way by either disposing of your single-use PPE correctly or, preferably, by using re-usable PPE. 


SST’s main programme, the African Marine Waste Network (AMWN), has a mandate to work in all 54 African countries to reach their ‘towards zero plastics to the seas’ goal by reducing litter at source on land and in doing so, preventing it from reaching the ocean.

For more information on SST and its projects, please visit