Litter from masks, gloves become health hazard for employees, wildlife

Antonia Noori Farzan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Several weeks ago, small pops of colour began to dot the drab early spring landscape. Like stubborn weeds, the bright blue latex gloves kept appearing on busy sidewalks, in supermarket parking lots, or along roadsides with damp leaves and human debris.

The problem has only worsened as more and more people turn to disposable masks and gloves to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. On Saturday, one Connecticut woman posted a picture of a grassy hill littered with what at first looked like Easter eggs, but on further inspection proved to be dozens of discarded rubber gloves in colorful teal and buttercup-yellow hues. Similar scenes are playing out everywhere from Sacramento to Southampton, New York, potentially threatening wildlife and putting essential workers at risk.

“I have plenty of trash cans,” Steve Melton, a groundskeeper in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told WZZM. “But, they throw their gloves, their masks, everything that they are done with, down in my parking lot.”

As suiting up in protective gear for a rare trip outdoors becomes mainstream or even mandatory, jettisoned masks and gloves have become a common sight in hospital parking garages, abandoned grocery carts and even on scenic nature trails. The problem, of course, is that underpaid and overworked sanitation and grocery workers are inevitably the ones to pick them up.

“These stores are already taxed with being busy, and now they have to have staff diverted to cleaning the parking lots to make sure they’re clean and sanitary,” Patrick Cheetham, the police captain in Londonderry, New Hampshire, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. “It’s creating more work and potentially putting them at risk.”

While the coronavirus is believed to primarily spread through human-to-human contact, a growing body of evidence suggests that contaminated particles can linger on surfaces for hours or even days. That means that there’s a small but not inconsiderable chance that someone who picks up a discarded mask could get infected. Begging people not to toss their used protective gear onto the sidewalk, the Boston Public Works Department recently posted pictures of masked and gloved workers stooping over to gingerly scrape the detritus off the street.

In addition to potentially being a biohazard, used masks and gloves are neither recyclable nor biodegradable. Officials warn that they can easily be swept into storm drains, then end up in oceans and waterways. That in turn raises the risk that they’re mistaken for food and eaten by turtles, marine mammals or seabirds like wandering albatrosses, which have been known to ingest plastic gloves.

Conservationists worry about the long-term implications of the new influx of trash. In mid-March, Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, told Reuters that alarming numbers of single-use masks were piling up on nature trails and beaches in Hong Kong. On one trip to an uninhabited island south of Hong Kong’s airport, he found 70 discarded masks that had washed up on a small stretch of sand, he said.

Health and environmental concerns aside, there’s also something deeply unsettling about stumbling across used rubber gloves and surgical masks. “It’s like when somebody drops a dirty needle or something,” one woman told CBS Miami. “It bothers me because they took off their gloves that think may be contaminated and threw it right by my car.”

In some communities, police and health officials are actively monitoring store parking lots and ticketing people who drop used masks and gloves on the ground. On Monday, Yorktown, New York, doubled the fine for littering, warning that violators will now be charged $1,000 for a first offense.

“It’s not like they’re throwing out candy wrappers,” Yorktown Supervisor Matt Slater said in a statement. “They’re throwing out medical waste – used rubber gloves and face masks that could potentially be contaminated with coronavirus.”

Others are hoping that public shaming gets the message across. New York State Assemblyman Michael Reilly, R, recently tweeted that he was “disgusted” to find gloves and masks scattered across the parking lot during a grocery run. “Those pigs think it is ok to leave it for workers to pick up after them,” he wrote.

In Attleboro, Massachusetts, Mayor Paul Heroux, D, has started posting photos of discarded masks and gloves on his Facebook page, urging residents to be more considerate. “I work in produce at Stop & Shop . . . not only am I finding used gloves on the ground, people are leaving them inside or on produce displays,” one woman recently responded. “I’ve found at least a dozen this last weekend. It’s disgusting.”

Meanwhile, some private citizens are taking matters into their own hands. Last weekend, Ben Johnson of Alberta, Canada, got a long stick and filled a shopping bag with used gloves. “They’re bright-colored blue, and bright colors attract children,” he told Globalnews.ca, complaining that people “only wear these things to protect themselves and they don’t give a damn about anybody else.”

The gloves and masks aren’t the only garbage piling up. Coffee chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ were quick to ban reusable cups as the virus spread. A growing number of cities and states have outlawed reusable grocery bags, even though they’re easy to wash and there’s no evidence that they’ve contributed to spreading the coronavirus. Meanwhile, bans on plastic bags have been rolled back in many parts of the country, due in no small part to lobbying by the plastics industry.

With streets deserted and storefronts shuttered, finding abandoned gloves or masks in otherwise-empty spaces can be an eerie reminder that contagion lurks everywhere. The ghostly, forgotten gloves of the pandemic have inspired at least one Instagram account, and the British photographer Dan Giannopoulos has started documenting each piece of discarded protective gear that he finds on his daily walks.

“As a photographer, during the beginning of the lockdown, I had thought about ways to document these surreal times from home,” Giannopoulos wrote in a photo essay for the BBC, explaining that the litter revealed the intensity of the crisis and the level of public anxiety. “These discarded gloves also represented, to me, our own virulent impact on the environment.”