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Pandemic pollution: Disposable masks, gloves are saving lives but ruining the environment

As the world has become hyper-hygienic since the pandemic began, plastic is playing an oversized role in the world's environmental problems. This Earth Day, Stephanie Sy looks at how many of the single-use pandemic items are piling up in our landfills and in our environment.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been mentioning, today is Earth Day.

    While carbon emissions and climate change are front and center, this is a good moment to look at another major environmental problem.

    As the world has become hyper-hygienic since the pandemic began, plastic is playing an oversized role.

    Stephanie Sy looks at how the single-use nature of many pandemic items are piling up in our landfills and in our environment.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    They're the one item we now know helps stop the spread of COVID-19, face masks. They come in different shapes and sizes, and many are disposable.

    Over the past year, they have become an important part of living safely in the middle of a pandemic. Around the world, 129 billion are used every single month, and three million are thrown out every single minute.

    Most are made of layers of plastic microfibers. It's creating a new kind of plastic pollution, contaminating waterways and hurting wildlife.

    Maria Algarra is the founder of Clean This Beach Up in Miami.

  • Maria Algarra:

    Let's see what we can collect in a couple of blocks in South Beach.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    At the beginning of the pandemic, she found she had to expand her cleanup beyond the beach. She started the Glove Challenge, asking people around the world to tag places they found latex gloves littered. The results came flooding in. And, before long, single-use face masks were strewn everywhere too.

  • Maria Algarra:

    Every single cleanup that we do on a shoreline, we're collecting from 50 to 100 masks.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    To see just how easy it is to spot pandemic pollution, we asked our "NewsHour" staff to keep their eyes open for it. From Washington, D.C., to California, they shared videos and photos of this new kind of litter.

    Why is the mask pollution particularly concerning to you?

  • Maria Algarra:

    It's not just about the fact that masks are not biodegradable or recyclable. It's about the fact that they are a hazard for our wildlife, not just because they can eat the mask, but also because animals get entangled in the straps.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Algarra and her team found a mask twisted around a puffer fish. Birds are getting caught up in them. And marine life are eating them.

    So, if I needed to dispose of this mask, Maria, do you have advice on how I could do that to minimize harm to animals and the environment?

  • Maria Algarra:

    The idea is to dispose of your mask properly, put it in the bin, but also remember to cut or rip off the straps. That will be saving so many lives.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Jenna Jambeck has made a career out of studying the waste we create.

  • Jenna Jambeck:

    We are the top waste generator by country and per person in the world.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The University of Georgia professor is currently driving and camping the length of the Mississippi River with her husband and two kids, all the while hunting for plastic debris.

    It's part of an initiative started by mayors of cities along the river to reduce plastic pollution by 20 percent. Jambeck brought her scientific expertise and, as a fellow at National Geographic, a network of educators.

    One way they're helping is with data. The Marine Debris Tracker is an app that lets people log exactly what they're finding and where. And like Maria Algarra noticed on the ground in Miami, Jambeck said it didn't take long for reports of PPE in the environment to roll in.

  • Jenna Jambeck:

    Including masks, gloves and wipes, we have seen over 11,500 items reported through just our app alone. I just think it's so reflective of sort of our actions and our activities and what we use on a daily basis.

    Some of that leaks out. And we sort of immediately pretty much saw that through this system.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And why and how are these things making their way into the environment?

  • Jenna Jambeck:

    So, you go to the grocery store, you're using a disposable mask, you go in and you need it the whole time you're shopping. And you come out, and let's say you put a mask and gloves, and then you're like, well, these are dirty now. What do I do with them?

    And that sort of speaks to how we make and use things as well. We often don't think about end of life, meaning, what do we do when we need to dispose of anything in the environment? It just really came to light, I think, through the PPE that we were wearing.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And it's not just medical protective gear that's adding to pandemic pollution. Many busy families balancing homeschool and work-from-home schedules in the last year relied on endless days and nights of takeout.

    The leftovers shelf.

    Much of it, including my family's, comes in plastic containers and with single-use utensils.

  • Jenna Jambeck:

    I saw a lot of to-go packaging, to-go, like clamshells, both foam and plastic, plastic bags, plastic bottles.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In some cases, places overcompensated on individual plastic packaging, believing it would prevent COVID from spreading.

    But many of these containers aren't recyclable. And in the U.S., we recycle less than 9 percent of the plastic we use. One company based outside Phoenix, Arizona, Footprint, is trying to disrupt the plastic packaging industry.

    CEO and co-founder Troy Swope showed us around.

  • Troy Swope:

    The whole point is to take waste. To make something that only has a very short useful life, this is the best option for the planet.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The containers are made of plant-based fiber, including wood the company says is sourced from sustainable forests. Swope says they are compostable and biodegradable.

    Their biggest client is ConAgra, which uses Footprint containers for some of its brands. Takeout salad company Sweetgreen is a big client. And even McDonald's is testing out some of their lids.

    To compete with plastic food packaging, Footprint tests its containers for durability. This simple experiment looks at whether the oil from the salad dressing bleeds through the product.

    The key for why it doesn't, Swope says, is a proprietary coating they literally bake in and they claim is free of harmful chemicals.

  • Troy Swope:

    Number one, we focus on being plastic free. And the importance of that is at the end of life. We wanted something that had multiple end-of-life options.

    So, the best way to put it is, we wanted something that nature could digest. So, at the end of the day, if you just left it on the side of the road or got in an ocean, it would just disappear without being toxic to animals or to the water.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, do your products cost the same as the plastic alternative?

  • Troy Swope:

    We design everything to be cost-competitive with plastic. So, from day one, we wanted to have a massive impact on the planet. So, we — at day one, we said we are going to have to develop the technologies to compete with plastic, not only in performance, but in price.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But it's not just where a product ends up that matters. It's how it begins. Energy and water go into manufacturing, even of biodegradable packaging like Footprints' that boast lower carbon emissions.

  • Jenna Jambeck:

    Alternative materials are definitely going to be part of the integrated approach, I think, to this. But we don't necessarily also just want to switch all of the single-use over to that. We would — I think we would like to reduce quantities first still, if we can.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, ultimately, says Maria Algarra, change will be driven by what each of us demands of government, corporations, and ourselves.

  • Maria Algarra:

    We could clean every single beach, every shoreline in the world, and that won't stop plastic pollution. The change starts with us in our choices, in our consumption.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

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