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Governments React to PPE Litter Crisis

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

Ben Dolbear investigates the growing concern of PPE waste and what action Governments are taking.

Photo by Max Bander

After a collection of footage emerged showing personal protective equipment (PPE) scattered across the seabed of the Mediterranean, national governments have begun reacting to this new pollution scandal.

The shocking footage of plastic face masks and gloves littered across the depths of the Mediterranean, near Antibes, France, and since then, YouTube has seen a surge in videos which reveal the true environmental cost of discarding single-use plastic gear designed to protect humanity against COVID-19.

In response to the public outcry caused by the plastic pollution in the Mediterranean, the French government, celebrated across the developed world for its relatively ambitious environmental-policy agenda aimed primarily at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dealing with air and water pollution, stepped in to more than double PPE littering base-rate fines from just €68 to a more noticeable €135. However, the maximum penalty, depending on the severity of the individual case, could reach €750.

Brune Poirson is a minister in the French government charged with implementing policy on dropping litter on the streets, and commented [in French]:

'Plastic waste linked to the COVID-19 crisis reminds us that if we want clean oceans, it starts with clear sidewalks.'

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Closer to Home

Wales has reported a 'significant increase' in litter on the streets during the national lockdown, with regional environmental organisation Keep Wales Tidy telling ITV that much of the PPE found on the streets in non-biodegradable. Not only is it damaging to our environment, much PPE is designed to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, meaning that discarded equipment could be helping to spread the virus. Since the beginning of the UK lockdown in mid-March, 200 bags of rubbish were collected in Grangetown, Cardiff; the community has a population of 19,385, leading to fears that the problem could be much worse across the country.

There has also been a rise in discarded wet wipes and antibacterial products, and with Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething advising triple-layer face coverings in cases where social distancing is not possible, there are fears that the volume of litter will just increase in coming months.

During the early stages of the pandemic, many environment-conscious media outlets celebrated the unique opportunity for nature to revive as humanity reduced its consumption and travel. In April, we wrote about the healing of nature with particular emphasis on the significant reduction in small particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide in the UK's atmosphere.

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Multi-Agency Action

What is being described by non-profit Opération Mer Propre as 'Covid waste' is overwhelming our oceans with unprecedented numbers of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitiser. Laurent Lombard, a spokesperson for the French organisation, has said that

'soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean'.

The Department of Health confirmed that in the just few days alone,1.5 million Type 11R masks had arrived from China in Belfast, for use in Northern Ireland. France has taken the lead on punishing those who litter the environment with non-biodegradable PPE, and environmental advocates are encouraging the UK government to follow suit.

In May, BBC's Countryfile examined how the coronavirus lockdown has affected the amount of waste being illegally dumped, and many argue that the £150 on-the-spot fine for fly-tippers should be increased substantially.


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