Environmental Impact of PPE is Mounting. What Can Be Done About It?

disposable medical mask with a bottle of handsanitizer

Take a walk outside and you’re likely to see masks, gloves, or disposable sanitary wipes scattered about the ground. What began as a sign of due diligence to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 is now causing concern among many about the mounting environmental impact of PPE (personal protective equipment). 

Mark Benfield, a professor at Louisiana State Universities Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, first started noticing discarded PPE on his daily walks in March around Baton Rouge. It was the site of these materials that led him to reach out to colleagues across the globe to find out if they too were seeing the same problem – they were. Benfield went on to launch a tracking system allowing individuals to geotag photos of PPE waste not properly disposed of.

collection of disposable medical masks

What is the Environmental Impact of PPE?

PPE is neither recyclable nor biodegradable which in turn are causing two unique problems as large parts of the world are still scrambling to contain the coronavirus. The sudden surge saw both individuals as well as waste and recycling facilities unsure of how to properly get rid of personal protection equipment. Individuals for their part face three choices to put them in the trash, to recycle them, or to dump them wherever they happen to be.

The choice to recycle PPE turns out to be the wrong one. They can’t be and as Steve Changris, the northeast region vice president of the National Waste & Recycling Association, points out they can contaminate sellable bundles of recycled materials. Additionally, if PPE is found within a recycling plant the process is shut down and materials picked through by hand. In turn, causing not just a slow down but a risk to workers health. 

The act of littering is what has individuals concerned. Wipes are ending up in waterways which can and have clogged wastewater stations and city pipes. PPE pushed down storm drains which lead directly to rivers and lakes pose a threat to drinking water and local aquatic systems. These single-use products have been found on seabeds and washed up on beaches adding to the estimated 8 million tonnes of plastics entering oceans every year

Medical mask on the ground on a cobble stone street with two runners in the background

Officials around the United States are aware of the growing problem. Some cities and towns have raised littering fines as is the case for the Swampscott Police Department in Massachusetts. Frustration over accumulating PPE found throughout the town led officials to post a Facebook message “THIS IS A CRIME!! UNLAWFUL DISPOSAL OF TRASH and the first offense is finable up to $5,500…” The concern is two fold addressing both the act of littering and the fear that COVID-19 could be spread as a result of improperly discarded items.

Proper Disposal of PPE

The EPA advises throwing away used PPE in garbage bins and keeping it out of recycling containers. Health experts worldwide endorsed a statement that so long as individuals are following basic hygiene practices reusables aren’t inherently more dangerous than single-use plastics. And, a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that COVID-19 lasted longer on plastic and stainless steel.

A few small steps can help curtain the growing environmental impact of PPE:

Dispose of PPE in regular trash bins.

Cities, towns, stores and manufacturers should provide signage detailing appropriate disposal. 

Help track PPE waste by participating in Benfield’s survey by emailing covid19waste@gmail.com

If possible use a fabric reusable mask, properly sanitizing after each use.

Use approved household disinfectants to clean reusable and disposable products.

Two disposable medical masks on a clothes line after being washed to help prevent the Environmental Impact of PPE

10 Million Enslaved In Bondage Labor Worldwide

elderly man working with a hoe in muddy field

In March 2016 police forces and local authorities launched one of the biggest raids on brick kiln factories in southern India freeing 546 workers. The operation was part of ongoing efforts to find and liberate workers duped into bondage labor. The mission shed light internationally on the estimated 10 million people worldwide still working under the modern system of slavery known as bondage labor, a tentacle of forced labor.

Also known as debt bondage, bonded slavery, bonded labor, or peonage this form of slavery is not a practice relegated to the annals of history. The International Labour Organization estimates half of all victims of forced labor (21 million) are in some form of bondage labor, approximately 10 million worldwide.  Within the agricultural, domestic work, and manufacturing sectors that percentages rises to 70 percent.

Historical painting of slaves working on a sugar cane plantation. Possible bondage labor

The practice of debt bondage has been around for centuries most notably in Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, some African Kingdoms, and Peru. In the United States although slavery was abolished in 1865 imposed peonage practices existed until the 1960’s. African Americans who were arrested under the vague legalities of vagrancy or loitering and unable to pay their court fees and fines were forced into bonded slavery.

“The officer pulled out a long piece of paper from his pocket and read it to my new employer. When this was done I heard my new boss say “I beg your pardon, Captain. I didn’t know this nigger was bound out to you, or I wouldn’t have hired him.”So I was carried back to the Captain’s. That night he made me strip off my clothing down to my waist, had me tied to a tree in his backyard ordered his foreman to give me thirty lashes with a buggy whip across my bare back, and stood by until it was done. After that experience the Captain made me stay on his place night and day—but my uncle still continued to “draw” my money.” – Excerpt from A Georgia Sharecropper’s Story of Forced Labor ca. 1900.

Why Is Bondage Labor Slavery If Workers Are Being Paid?

Agreement to pay down a debt differs significantly from debt bondage. The United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery define debt bondage as:

“Debt bondage, that is to say, the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined” (UN Supplementary Convention, art. 1)

Indian laborer working in rice patty.

When an individual is forced to work because they are either a) unable to pay off their original debt due to increased interest on that debt or b) not able to seek employment elsewhere to repay the original debt this is what is considered bonded slavery. Often these arrangements were and still are entered into under mutual agreement in good faith however, unfair contract conditions, exploitative conditions, and additional sums added to the original debt making repayment of the principle and the interest almost impossible. The evil of interest accruement is that it leads to a cycle in which the individual cannot leave and can force an entire family and future generations to work towards paying off a single individual’s debt.

Factors Leading to Bondage Labor

Today debt slavery is most prevalent in South-East Asia, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh but is seen throughout the world. Using India as a case study the country is home to more than one-third of the world’s poor with 1.3 billion people living on less than $3 a day and 250 million people living on less than $2 a day. With very little money to survive on it is common for individuals of families to take out loans for medical needs, shelter, or food with little to no say over the conditions of that loan partly out of desperation and partly due to lack of education and knowledge of their rights.

Others from rural communities looking to make their way into the cities to find work agree to contracts that pay their passage. This was also seen in colonial American with poorer Europeans looking for passage to the New World. However, unlike most Europeans at that time modern contracts bind that individual to certain jobs with the base amount continually increasing. This debt can accrue over generations trapping individuals and their families in the same cycle of poverty they were working towards escaping.

two men working in textile dying factory. Bondage labor is rampant in the textile industry,

What Industries Use Bonded Slavery?

Rice mills, farms, brick kilns, embroidery factories, construction, commercial fishing, and domestic servitude are the primary industries but bonded slavery can be found in just about every sector. The Sumangali Scheme in the Tamil Nadu textile and garment industry made global headlines when women started to speak out about the working conditions and impossible contracts. Young girls were (in 2018 Labour and Employment Minister Nilofer Kafeel and Textile Minister O.S. Manian said the scheme was no longer practiced however, many believe it has moved further underground) recruited to work in cotton spinning mills for three to five years in exchange for a grand sum upon completion of their contract. Unknown to these girls their room, board, food, and other expenses were being subtracted from their promised sum. 

Should that sum be diminished the girls would continue to work unaware of their mounting expenses. Additionally, living and working conditions could be and often were dangerous. In one story a young woman, Vasandi, tells how they were locked in at night and unable to visit or speak with family. Many of the girls were injured or became ill from unsafe working environments. Those who made it to the end of their contracts were fired just before receiving any wages but most never reached that point either from quitting, injury, or in some cases death.

close up of embroidery with white thread. Bondage labor is rampant in the textile industry.

What Can Be Done To End This Practice

Lack of education and generational poverty are key contributors leading to continuation of bondage labor. The Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery (RAGAS) with the help of others works towards erradicating debt slavery through education. Through education individuals are better able to understand the types of contracts they sign and also provide skills so seek out alternative employment opportunities. Potential employers actively work against these organizations, who often operate in secret, to dissuade youth from attending lessons. Education will also help to prevent generational poverty leading many potential bonded laborers to borrow money from unscrupulous lenders.

A third and equally important contributing factor is rule of law which is either lacking in the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo or absolute in the case of North Korea. Both prevent appropriate oversight and prosecution of responsible parties. And yet, at the international level many refuse to hold individuals or governments accountable especially when bonded labor contributes to the global supply chain. This is most notable in the mineral mines across Africa which are key to the creation of modern electronics. 

A call for transparency along supply chains, education, accountability, prosecution, and strengthened international laws will all be needed to eradicate bondage labor and other forms of slavery. But as some countries turn towards isolationism the question remains do we care so long as goods keep arriving at our doorstep?

What Iceland Can Teach Us About Ethical Clothing

Cait Bagby in a Lopapeysa Sweater sorting sheep in Iceland at the annual Rettir. Discussing how the HandKnitting Association is paving the way for ethical clothing around the world.
Cait Bagby in a Lopapeysa Sweater of Iceland. Discussing how the HandKnitting Association is paving the way for ethical clothing around the world.

Founded in 1977 by a small group of women, the Handknitting Association of Iceland recently won a major battle in the fight for ethical clothing. You’d be forgiven for not thinking about ethical clothing in the land of ice and fire and yet it pervades throughout every aspect of the Icelandic way of life. 

The 2008 financial collapse presented a unique opportunity to a country that was often little more than a stop over from mainland Europe and North America. Deflation of the Icelandic króna led to a sharp increase in the rise of tourism which in turn helped the economy to rebound. An estimated 40% of the country’s export revenues and 10% of it’s GDP are linked to tourism. In 2019 around 2 million tourists visited the country and while that number has been declining the decade long boom left an enormous impact.

Whether it was the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, the rise of instagram influencers flocking to the vast expanses to snap an envious picture, the airline stopover promotions, or the popularity of Game of Thrones; Iceland was on a whole not prepared for what the influx of tourism would mean. Infrastructure was quickly built, tourism companies boomed, Airbnb sprang up in just about every apartment building in Reykjavik and farmhouse through the countryside, restaurants diversified, souvenir shops popped up throughout, and the endless wave led to a creative expansion across the country. But, not everyone embraced the transformation. 

The lopapeysa sweater has long been the iconic garment of the Icelandic peoples. You won’t find a closet without one. And while there is a long history of knitting for both young and old, men and women, this particular sweater didn’t enter the vernacular until sometime between the 1920’s and 1950’s. It coincided with the more efficient mechanizations of processing wool. The sweaters are made from lopi a unique fiber to the sheep of Iceland and is heralded for both its lightness and strength while remaining waterproof. A must in the oftentimes harsh climate. Historically to be classified as a Lopapeysa the sweater must be knit from lopi in a continuous loop without seams. Additionally, it must include a circular pattern around the shoulders. It wasn’t until Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944 that the Lopapeysa became a national symbol. 

Tourisms Impact On Ethical Clothing

Up until the tourism boom the Lopapeysa could have been used as an ethical clothing measuring stick. It was made from local wool from sheep that were treated humanely, mainly coming from small family farms. They were made from natural fibers and knitted in the country where living wages were paid. The surge in tourism drastically shifted the demand and by virtue of that the means of production.

The modern economy for all of its positives also brings with it plenty of opportunity to increase profit margins at the expense of quality, safety, environmental and worker well being. In the case of the Lopapeysa sweater, chasing the often elusive profit margin led many businesses to start outsourcing their manufacturing where wages remain depressed compared to that of Iceland’s. In short, to meet the demand while continuing to increase profits some high street Icelandic brands began contracting Chinese firms to either knit the sweaters from lopi at reduced wages or began making them from blended materials, sometimes both. A debate emerged as to whether or not they could truly be called Icelandic.

Clever marketing tags started popping up that without thorough research were difficult to differentiate. “Made in Iceland” or “Made from Icelandic Wool” became the greenwashing go-to for these companies. Made in Iceland may or may not mean that the sweater is made from a hundred percent lopi while made from Icelandic wool may or may not mean it was made in the country or contains a hundred percent lopi. Tourists were left to their own devices trying to figure out the authenticity but often became seduced by high street convenience and price differentiation while remaining none the wiser.

The Handknitting Association rallied against what they saw as a theft of local heritage and launched a campaign for clear and transparent labeling and protection. Members not only wanted to preserve the local craft but also ensure tourists and locals alike were buying the real deal: made in Iceland and from only Icelandic lopi. In March 2020 after years of lobbying they won. 

The sweaters received the second only Designation of Origin Label granting it legal protection under The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority. The ruling in short protects the pattern, craftsmanship, means of production, materials used, and ultimately enshrines the cultural values associated with each one. 

There has been no mention as to whether or not the labels “Made in Iceland” or “Made from Icelandic Wool” will disappear or continue to adorn knockoff products but they can no longer be called Lopapeysa sweaters without adhering to the seven conditions laid out by the Designation of Origin Label.  What the Handknitting Association has accomplished is nothing short of a David versus Goliath narrative. They were able to preserve a traditional craft while at the same time laying a framework for companies, organizations, and governments around the world when it comes to the production of ethical clothing. Simultaneously they demonstrated that profit margins are not the be all and end all of today’s modern economy bringing hope to those who continue to fight for the widespread normalization of ethical clothing.