The Covid-19 pandemic may have given the planet a temporary, though not long-lasting, breather when it comes to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s also given Earth a new environmental scourge: latex gloves on beaches and sewers filled with face masks.
A number of organizations have raised concerns that oceans, rivers, and sewers are becoming increasingly swamped with disposable face masks, latex gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, and other non-recyclable personal protective equipment (PPE) items as the world continues to grapple with Covid-19.
French ocean conservation group Opération Mer Propre regularly documents its ocean clean-up operations on social media and has reported seeing notably more pieces of PPE in the Mediterranean Sea.
“Very worrying about the new waste related to Covid... We pick [this kind of pollution] up at every clean now, mainly latex gloves,” Opération Mer Propre posted on Facebook May 20.
“This is the first disposable masks to arrive in the Mediterranean,” the group wrote after a clean-up operation on May 23. “It's just the beginning and if nothing changes it will become a real ecological disaster and maybe even health [one].”
It isn’t just Europe, or natural environments, that are feeling the burn. A number of city authorities in the US have also reported sewers and stormwater pumping stations becoming clogged with latex gloves and facemasks, which they believe many people are flushing down toilets.
Although there’s no data on the scale of the problem yet, the Associated Press contacted 15 city authorities in the US and all reported they had had significantly more sewer clogs and drainage issues since the pandemic began. This might be related to people flushing PPE or, they say, it could be due to people flushing alternatives to toilet tissue amid the early-lockdown panic buying.
In light of this pollution problem, the US Environmental Protection Agency released a statement telling citizens to properly dispose of PPE. Advice included not putting used disinfectant wipes, gloves, masks, PPE, or any medical waste in recycling bins as they could be contaminated by pathogens and are considered a health hazard. A number of recycling organizations have urged people to dispose of discarded masks and gloves safely by putting them in general refuse. It should also go without saying that littering PPE is gross, inconsiderate, and dangerous, so be sure to safely put used PPE into the appropriate general refuse bin if you’re out in public.
“No one should be leaving used plastic gloves or masks on the ground in a parking lot or tossing them into the bushes,” David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), said in a statement. “Discarded contaminated PPE on the ground increases the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and has negative impacts on the environment.”