Mary E Black: Plastic waste from PPE does not need to happen

My daughter calls on WhatsApp. Through the summer of 2018 she spent hours staring down a microscope to distinguish fly wings from plastic films, and fish eggs from plastic pellets. Her paper on the measurement of microplastics in Arctic waters from the Russian research ship SS Professor Molchanov has just been accepted for publication

Thunk. A package drops through my letter box: my faecal immunochemical test kit (FIT). Hurray for an NHS that cares about my colon and wants to screen me for cancer. I recall the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London when I screened folks for gut parasites. My patients stuffed flimsy plastic jars with the good stuff and posted them back in standard brown envelopes. I remember the panicked phone call from the St Pancras sorting office manager during another baking hot summer (1987). A package destined for our laboratory had burst. This newly designed FIT test scores much better on health and safety. Full eco-marks for the cardboard sleeve. The additional plastic packaging, however, gets zero brownie points.

People are afraid of waste. I thank our sewage and water treatment workers every time I fill a glass of London tap water. We designed those solutions. John Snow stopped a cholera epidemic by disabling the Broad St Pump; Bazalgette’s 200 year old vision of a London super sewer was public health genius. Today covid-19 contagion strikes fear into our hearts, especially if we have the exposure, years, waistline, ethnicity or co-morbidities that make us more susceptible. To protect people from harm we cover ourselves and them in layers of plastic. When I qualified as a doctor, almost all personal protective equipment (PPE) was reusable. Now the vast majority of the world’s PPE is single use and contains a range of plastics, from polypropylene and polyethylene in face masks and gowns, to nitrile, vinyl, and latex in gloves. Oil prices have plummeted, rendering virgin plastic cheaper than ever.

PPE is not recyclable or biodegradable. Europe practices waste imperialism by shipping it for profit to poorer countries. Masks end up on our beaches and in our sea-life. Billions are spent on PPE and practically nothing on the ecologically safe design of PPE. Admittedly, addressing sustainability is complex. If we do not design a solution soon to our mounting PPE plastic waste problem, then we will fix the immediate problem of covid-19, but create a long-term nightmare. We may have to live with this virus for years, but plastic will linger for centuries, so let’s champion the design of safe, non-polluting solutions. Will we let this virus take our loved ones, our economy AND our oceans?

Back to my daughter and her WhatsApp saga. Her distress is clear.

“The saddest thing, Mum, was watching a protozoan trying to engulf a fragment of plastic bigger than itself.”

“It wasn’t thinking ahead,” I say. 

“Why should it? It has no brain.” 

But we do.

Mary E Black is clinical director and director of health protection at Public Health Scotland. Twitter @DrMaryBlack

Competing interests: None declared