Blog: Massive Challenge of Safe Disposal of PPE

In the last couple of months, you must have definitely worn a sanitary mask, probably even slipped on a pair of gloves. But before buying them, did you at least think about how you would dispose them? An obvious answer would be - “my trash can”. Well, let me bombard you with some hard facts. Less than 10% percent of Indian households manage their waste. That means, there is a 90% probability that the sanitary waste that you dispose ends up in the landfills as mixed waste. However, if you are amongst the 10 percent, you are making the world a better place!


What is PPE?

The word PPE has been trending on the internet for all the WRONG reasons. But what is PPE in the first place? It’s literal expansion is Personal Protective Equipment. It is protective clothing or equipment usually worn by employees, students, contractors or visitors to protect or shield their bodies from workplace hazards, but thanks to the COVID-19, millions of people in India have bought PPE in the last two months. From zero, India now produces around 2 lakh PPE kits per day! And where is the bulk disposed? You guessed it right - THE LANDFILLS


Types of PPE?

Majority of PPE in use today is non-reusable, and since it is contaminated ALL PPE is non-recyclable and non-biodegradable. There are discussions and videos on re-using PPE through washing or sterilization or UV, but even doing that repeatedly significantly limits and lowers the total lifespan of that PPE. Nonetheless, there is a second type of PPE – REUSABLE PPE. It is self-explanatory what reusable PPE is, however, its advantages are often taken lightly.

When it comes to masks as PPE, especially N-95 masks, there is a lot of debate about how often to re-use it. But first, it is important to understand how these kinds of masks work. Here's an interesting video on that topic:




What are the impacts of unsafe disposal?


From risking the lives of waste pickers to contaminating recyclables, the impacts of unsafe PPE disposal are innumerable. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, one of the biggest consequences is a tremendous increase in the size of landfills; this not only pollutes the soil, water and air but is a breeding ground for harmful bacteria, therefore, risking lives. To add on, PPE that does not end up in landfills, usually finds a way into the ocean, endangering marine species and biotic habitats.


How should PPE be disposed?


You may ask yourself if there actually is a solution to this. The answer actually is very simple and lies right in front of us. You can start by segregating your waste, especially your PPE! When disposing, make sure it’s thoroughly secured in a garbage bag and given to the local municipal corporation for further treatment. You could also label your PPE waste for extra precaution. Beware, even though PPE is made of rubber or plastic, it is non-recyclable as it is contaminated. Hence, it should not be put in the recycling bin.

One way in which the local authorities could help with its safe disposal could be by setting up trash cans specifically for disposal of PPEs. More signage in public places and awareness through advertisements on television on the right disposal of PPE may help in its right usage and disposal.


How can it be reduced?


The best way to reduce your PPE disposal is to try and REFUSE the use of non-reusable PPE. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the most common type of PPE which the mass use are face masks. One could buy reusable masks which are made of cloth and are easily washable. There are countless face-mask sewing tutorials online that can help you make your own reusable masks.

As much as PPE protects us, it can also jeopardize our health and environment. As rightly said by Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, “The PPE is intended to help us fight a public health challenge, not create a plastic pollution problem”. Hopefully, now when you go out to buy or trash your mask, you will think twice!


This blog is written by Kushal Gupta, a young trekker turned Waste Warriors volunteer and supporter. Kushal is from Hyderabad, and has taken it upon himself to raise awareness and change behaviours on solid waste management, not just at home but also in his community and his city.