A year ago, the idea that disposable face masks, gloves, and wipes could become global environmental pollutants was not a pressing concern. Personal protective equipment, PPE for short, was seen as essential for preventing the spread of COVID-19. No one imagined just how much of it would be needed, for so long. Then production exploded—and now the litter is inescapable.
In the time since, scientists have built a library of more than 40 studies that document the use and disposal of PPE and model what that looks like on a global scale. Numbers not known then tell the tale now. Globally, 65 billion gloves are used every month. The tally for face masks is nearly twice that—129 billion a month. That translates into 3 million face masks used per minute.
A separate study reports that 3.4 billion face masks or face shields are discarded every day. Asia is projected to throw away 1.8 billion face masks daily, the highest quantity of any continent globally. China, with the world’s largest population (1.4 billion) discards nearly 702 million face masks daily. All may be called disposable, because they’re cheap enough to be used once and then thrown away. But here’s the hitch: They don’t actually go away.