Plastics are a key element in the personal protective equipment (PPE) protecting health care providers and patients alike during the COVID-19 epidemic. The rest of us are also using PPE as we wear masks and gloves in efforts to avoid contracting or transmitting the virus in daily life. At the same time that use of PPE is preventing illness and saving lives, however, it’s adding to global plastic pollution.

Calculations at the George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC show that doctors, nurses and other medical professionals attending to COVID-19 patients enter a patient’s space anywhere from 50 to 80 times a day. Each person, each time, wears a disposable mask, gloves, gown and other equipment. Multiply that by the 1,000 COVID-19 patients the hospital had seen by late June 2020, and you can see the volume we’re talking about.

Protecting patients, health care workers and ourselves is a good thing. Finding ways to responsibly and effectively dispose of all these materials containing non-recyclable plastic, however, is quite a challenge.

So far we at DGI have seen plenty of evidence of what’s not working, with PPE washing up on beaches around the world. The Tara Ocean Foundation, for example, reported that the banks and beaches of several rivers in Europe were already littered with surgical masks and medical gloves earlier this month. Once these items are in the rivers they flow to the ocean, and disintegration begins. The main plastic, polypropylene, disintegrates quickly in the ocean and so is almost impossible to recover once it’s there.

To be clear: That’s adding to the burden of plastic pollution already seriously affecting our oceans and – through the food chain – us.

A report by the Medill School of Medicine at Northwestern University also called attention to the increased use of bottled water and plastic and Styrofoam food containers during the pandemic, as restaurants offer takeout while dining rooms are closed. And, at grocery stores, plastic bags have replaced our personal reusable grocery bags as businesses exercise caution about potential sources of contagion. All of this plastic has to go somewhere – and it’s ending up in landfills as well as the natural environment.

A problem this big calls for bold, large-scale solutions. Plastics are big business: The global plastics market is valued at more than $550 billion in 2020 and demand is expected to grow by at least 3 percent a year in the decade ahead. We need PPE and packaging solutions made of less destructive materials; we need to properly dispose of the non-recyclable plastics we must use meanwhile; and we need to fix the broken U.S. recycling system (here’s an Earth Institute/ Columbia University report outlining the problems as well as solutions already being piloted).