Along with Coronavirus, discarded masks and gloves are also becoming hazardous to health as people dump them on the streets.
The Louisiana State University professor, Mark Benfield, who focuses on microplastic pollution, was struck by the number of discarded gloves and masks he saw on his short route during a walk around his block in Baton Rouge. He decided to track the waste geotagged to the location where he spotted it with pictures.
“It was a lot more PPE waste than I expected,” he told CNN.
It is indeed a problem that’s apparent all across the country. Americans mostly wear personal protective equipment in their daily lives and litter it all over streets, parking lots, and parks.
The problem has become so severe that advisories have been issued against throwing masks and gloves on the streets and parking lots by many state and county public health departments.
“We need to contain the spread of COVID-19 and do the right lawful thing by throwing these items in the trash,” the Swampscott Police Department told its residents in a Facebook post, adding that it’s happening all over town and not just at Stop & Shop. “Please stop littering, this is making more work and worry for the people having to pick up this trash.”
Discarded plastic can be an environmental hazard
Starting from his first experiment, Benfield and his colleagues have created a methodological survey around the world. People are free to participate in the survey and help his study by emailing him at [email protected] on how widespread this waste problem is.
Recently two Chicago residents sent him data that shows the amount of PPE littered in the span of a few blocks.
“Preliminary data from these survey responses shows that gloves are the most common PPE waste,” Benfield said. “In the US, masks are difficult for the public to get. So gloves are most commonly found PPE-waste on the street. In China, masks are freely available. So you see more masks discarded.”
The PPEs like gloves, masks, and wipes are all plastic items, and when these are discarded into the environment, they go into sewer systems or water bodies. Then it breaks down into microplastics, which still attract other harmful pesticides and harmful chemicals. Therefore when the marine animals consume these, they don’t just eat the plastic, but the chemicals too.
“I can’t think of a material better designed to look like a jellyfish than gloves,” Benfield adds.
Other experts also agree: This is a growing environmental hazard.
“The PPE is intended to help us fight a public health challenge, not create a plastic pollution problem,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
It’s not about damaging the marine ecosystem but far beyond. People are also disposing of these materials in their recycling besides littering PPE in public areas. These are not supposed to go there.
“Even if they are plastic, they are not treated as curbside recycling,” said David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). “You bag it to prevent environmental harm. They should be placed in a securely tight garbage bag and be put out with the regular trash for collection.”
Paul Zambrotta, Director of safety at Mr. T Carting, a private waste management company that handles commercial waste, said rubber gloves and masks are often found in the recycling mix.
He said a combination of misinformation and wish-cycling is to blame as per his opinion.
The waste management employees work more closely with recycling material as it goes through a sorting line for quality control, unlike garbage bags that are trashed just as they are picked up.
The employees use PPE to do the work according to federal guidelines. However, the addition of PPE in recycling bags has increased the risk of their health and safety.
“We’re doing it more often than we have to,” Zambrotta said. “We have to take out possibly contaminated PPE, which wasn’t even supposed to be in there.”
As the workers are trained to work with PPE at all times, they have been scared, no workers at the company have tested positive for Coronavirus, Zambrotta said.
“If anyone had a sneeze or a little itch, they thought they needed to self-isolate. At one point, I had 90% of my workforce out sick.”
The used gloves and masks neither can be sold, nor any market is there for them. However, these easily get caught into the recycling machinery line and shut the facility down.
“Masks and gloves do not belong in recycling,” Benfield reiterated.
As Earth Day approaches, Esposito said people should feel the obligation to protect the environment.
“Long after COVID-19 is gone, we still need to protect the earth.”
Ways to manage your garbage and recycling
A few ways to manage garbage and recycling during the pandemic have been outlined by the experts to avoid hurting the environment.
1. Avoid littering in public places
“We recommend people throw their PPE in the trash. We don’t want to have children or unsuspecting healthy adults to come in contact and become carriers of the infection,” said Kristina Hamm, a spokeswoman for Orange County, California waste and recycling.
2. Stuff only clean material in your recycling bins
“With Earth Day approaching, it’s more important than ever to manage our waste and recyclables properly,” Biderman said. “We need to make sure that material we’re putting in our recycling bins, is clean and not contaminated by non-recyclable material like food. People trash yogurt containers, but if there’s yogurt in there, that’s a problem.”
3. PPE should go straight to regular trash and not for recycling
It can be made of plastic or rubber, but it is contaminated. Hence it is regular trash and not recyclable.
4. Put your PPE in a tight and secure garbage bag
Put it out with the regular trash for collection.
5. Keep a bag or container with you
Keep a small plastic or paper bag, or some container with you, where you can discard your contaminated PPE, in case you don’t find a trash can nearby. Then put it in your garbage.