The Hidden Impact of COVID-19: The Harmful Effects on the Environment and What You Can Do

Medical face coverings, while primarily used by healthcare workers or in clinical settings prior to the pandemic, have boomed in worldwide popularity throughout recent months in the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic.  Disposable masks and plastic gloves are a new staple in almost everyone’s wardrobe as the world begins to reopen, and they have become mandatory in many public places.  But while potentially slowing the spread of the virus, will this excessive use of personal protection equipment, or PPEs, have a negative effect on the planet?  Environment specialists are saying yes.

The Threat of PPES on our Oceans

Disposable surgical face masks are made mainly of non-woven plastic-based fabrics, polypropylene, polystyrene, polycarbonate, and polyester being among the most common, that take decades to hundreds of years to break down.  The biggest issue here is that while billions of people are being told to use face masks on a daily basis, little information is being given regarding how to properly dispose of or recycle them.  If discarded incorrectly, used PPEs pose a possible threat to anyone that comes in contact with them, specifically garbage collectors, by potentially spreading the virus. Though there is uncertainty regarding the time that the virus can survive on surfaces, according to a study published in The Lancet, the virus can potentially live up to seven days on disposable masks.  If they end up in the streets, it is nearly guaranteed that these plastic gloves and cloth masks will filter into oceans and affect aquatic life.  In the long term, the current and continual mass production of PPEs will have devastating and irreversible effects on the environment.

Shortly before the outbreak of the virus, a Hong Kong-based environmental NGO, known as OceansAsia, launched a year-long study observing marine debris and monitoring ocean-surface trash around the Soko Islands: one of the city’s most remote areas. 

During a recent visit to the island, conservationists encountered over 70 masks on the 100-meter shoreline, followed by another 30 a week later. Members of the OceansAsia team mentioned seeing a few scattered masks in the early months of the study, but now, they were rolling in with each current.  Hong Kong was one of the first cities to fully embrace the wearing of face coverings in their daily lives, which greatly contributed to their remarkably low infection rate, despite their proximity to China.  In comparison to the United States’ number of cases approaching nearly 6.5 million in early September, Hong Kong has only had less than 5,000.  

Along with the surge of ocean pollution at the shores of Hong Kong, French non-profit organization, Opération Mer Propre, or Operation Clean Sea, have begun speaking up about the issue.  During a recent exploration, divers found dozens of disposable masks, plastic gloves, and empty bottles of sanitizer littered beneath the surface of the Mediterranean sea.  This new found pollution poses a huge threat to marine life.  Marine biologists are concerned that gloves, like plastic bags, could appear as jellyfish and threaten sharks or sea turtles that may mistake them as food.  The strings found on disposable masks also pose their own issues, potentially entangling marine and wildlife.  Joffrey Peltier, the founder of Opération Mer Propre, fears that this may be the beginning of a new wave of pollution as millions look to disposable products to tackle the coronavirus.  

Just a few months ago, the most common items found floating in the ocean or washing up on shorelines were cigarette butts, food wrappers, and plastic bottles.  Today, similar to many other aspects of life that have changed due to unprecedented events, common items have become surgical masks, disposable gloves, and sanitizer bottles. 

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), “Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak. The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.” 

Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade

Although PPEs are beneficial in this crucial time of need — helping end the fight against coronavirus and protecting the health of many, they are also contributing to another international issue.  But even while health and safety have taken priority over the environment, it is important to keep in mind what consequences our actions have on the environmental crisis. 

So what can you do to help?

Masks, gloves, sanitizers, and wipes play a vital role in protecting ourselves and others from the coronavirus, but harming the environment should not be a necessary consequence if avoidable.  In purchasing reusable face masks and supporting environmentally-friendly businesses, you are greatly reducing the waste created by disposable masks.  You can also ensure the single-use masks that you do use, along with plastic gloves, empty sanitizer bottles, and used wipes, get disposed of properly and do not end up on city streets or in bodies of water.  

How to properly dispose of soiled tissues and used face masks: 

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends discarding used surgical or disposable masks in a closed litter bin after their one-time use.  Tossing masks or other personal protection equipment onto the street or sidewalk not only puts other people in possible danger of being exposed to the Covid-19 virus, but greatly affects the environment.  In addition, cutting the straps of your masks before disposal limits their potential of harming wildlife through entanglement.

Brands that produce reusable eco-friendly masks:

  1. Whimsy + Row 

Whimsy + Row, an eco-conscious brand centered around their love for quality products and sustainable practices.  Their handcrafted, affordable masks are made from locally sourced, upcycled, and low impact materials and have crafted over 1,000 masks to donate to Los Angeles-based organizations that are in need.  With each purchase, they also give one away.

  1.  United by Blue 

United by Blue crafts their products in GOTS-certified factories from sustainably-sourced materials and they are built to last.  Outside of being behind the removal of over two million pounds of trash in the ocean, their mission is to pave the way for businesses to become more sustainable and to inspire others to be less wasteful in their daily lives.  Now, with every purchase, United by Blue donates a mask to Chosen 300 to benefit Philadelphia residents experiencing homelessness.

man in white button up shirt standing beside white wall
  1.  Taylor Jay 

Taylor Jay is a Black-owned women’s fashion brand sourced out of California that emphasizes sustainability and size-inclusivity.  Their products are made with ethically-sourced and eco-friendly materials and crafted in a fair labor practicing factory.  Their reusable masks specifically are made from repurposed, soft cotton fabric.

  1.  Life Without Plastic 

Life Without Plastic is trying to create a, you guessed it, life without plastic.  With a vision to create a world without fossil-fuel derived plastic and a mission to raise awareness on health and environmental issues caused by plastic, this brand is the very definition of sustainable.  Life Without Plastic is creating non-medical grade face masks from 45% organic cotton and 55% hemp.

Reese Trowbridge


Reese Trowbridge is a 16 year old junior at Bayonne High School with interests in biology and medicine. Along with being a Zenerations writer, she has served as many positions in Student Government and is apart of Model UN. Her work mainly reflects her passions which include the environment, music, and mental health.


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