At the beginning of lockdown, photos on social media and the news presented an optimistic silver lining of the pandemic as nature seemingly thrived without humans around to litter and pollute. However, for every hopeful image of fish returning to the unusually clear canals of Venice, or of blue skies over normally smoggy cities, there are more of thoughtlessly discarded PPE or overflowing bins that prove nature is yet to “reclaim” our towns and cities. [1]

This is especially true now that lockdown measures begin to ease across the world, and the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) becomes more widespread – especially now that face coverings are required to be worn in shops and/or on public transport in the UK. The charity Keep Britain Tidy have warned that Britain may see a “littering epidemic” as people excitedly flock to the beaches, parks, and other outdoor spaces they have been unable to visit for months. [2] The charity’s Chief Executive, Allison Ogden-Newton, has said the littering of disposable face masks and gloves is particularly “heartbreaking, wrong, and thoughtless” because it could potentially lead to a further spread of the virus. [3]

Studies show that although COVID-19 is most easily spread from person to person through direct personal contact or from aerosols when talking or breathing, it is possible the virus can also be contracted through contact with contaminated surfaces. The World Health Organisation (WHO) explains that infected people can contaminate surfaces and objects with respiratory secretions or droplets. Therefore, the virus can be spread by inadvertently touching the face after coming into contact with these contaminated surfaces – this is known as fomite transmission. [4] There have not yet been any definitive studies on the rate of fomite transmission, however, the WHO says there is “consistent evidence” that it is a factor in spreading the virus “given consistent findings about environmental contamination in the vicinity of infected cases and the fact that other coronaviruses and respiratory viruses can transmit this way.” [5]

Although we do not yet have conclusive data on the rate of fomite transmission, there have been a number of studies conducted that examine how long the virus can survive on various surfaces. Tests conducted with the endemic human coronavirus strain (HCOV-), a similar virus, indicate that contaminated materials and surfaces can remain infectious for two hours up to nine days. [6] Meanwhile, more recent studies conducted using the novel COVID-19 virus (SARS-Cov-2) suggest that infectious traces of the virus can be detected from one up to “at least 72” hours, depending on the material. [7] However, even without a specific, conclusive study on fomite transmission, one thing all studies and advice agree on is that good hand hygiene and regular surface disinfection is imperative in stopping the spread of the virus. [8] [9] As lockdowns ease worldwide and personal PPE use becomes more widespread, there is certainly concern that littering and incorrect disposal could lead to further spread, for example, retail staff cleaning up after customers who carelessly dispose of masks as they leave the store. Therefore, it is crucial to make sure single-use face masks and gloves are disposed of safely and correctly. The WHO advises discarding single-use PPE immediately, avoiding the outer surfaces, and disposing of it immediately in a closed bin. [10] One article, discussing the mask mandate in the Australian state of Victoria, calls for greater efforts towards public awareness regarding surface contamination and the correct disposal of PPE, and suggests that secured “pop-up” bins should be installed in public areas for masks and gloves. [11] These points certainly deserve some thought, especially given that in healthcare settings PPE is disposed of in designated clinical waste bins. [12]

Even if there was no risk of spreading COVID-19 via fomite transmission, the environmental concern over littering remains. Littering is unsightly, unhygienic, and damaging to the environment regardless of the situation. Unfortunately, this is not limited to PPE. A sharp rise in littering has already been reported across the UK, exacerbated by the fact that the pandemic has left local councils stretched thin for money and resources. [13] As lockdown eased and the weather turned warmer, Brits flocked to parks and scenic spots to enjoy some sunshine and socialising after months indoors. Photos of waste-strewn beauty spots emerged online, to widespread outrage. The charity Clean Up Britain described the scenes as “truly appalling and inexcusable,” asking “what sort of mindset allows people to enjoy the beauty of Britain while at the same time trashing it?”[14] Fly-tipping has also been on the rise, with West Oxfordshire District Council reporting a shocking “threefold” increase. [15] 

We must also consider the more long-term threats to the environment, even when single-use PPE is disposed of correctly. Recent research from University College London warns of the potential environmental impact of single-use face masks, made from plastics. Whether properly disposed of or not, if every person in the UK used one single-use mask daily for one year, it would lead to an extra 66,000 tonnes of plastic waste being created. [16] This is on top of the 13 million tonnes of plastic that the UN estimates is dumped in our oceans each year. [17] The French non-profit organisation Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea), which frequently conducts clean-up operations in the Mediterranean, warned that litter in the streets is highly likely to end up in the sea eventually. [18] Marine pollution was already a major climate concern before the pandemic, so this surge in ocean waste is an unfortunate setback and has the potential to have catastrophic long-term effects. As the pandemic continues, it will take time for us to uncover the full impact of the plastic waste it leaves behind. [19]

Littering and plastic waste caused by PPE is a complex and multifaceted problem with the potential to have wide-reaching, long-term implications. This unfortunately also means the solution is just as complex, and there is no clear easy fix. With that said, raising public awareness and taking individual responsibility is key. It is recommended to buy fabric face coverings, which can be washed and reused, and as a result less likely to be disposed of unsafely. Fabric masks can also be made at home cheaply and easily, with plenty of instructions published online, such as this handy guide from the BBC. There is also an online guide from the UK government that offers easy-to-follow advice for PPE use and disposal, which includes a link to valuable resources from eco-charity Recycle Now. These are small steps we all can take to help slow the spread of the virus and to reduce the epidemic of littering it has brought with it.