With many cities and countries mandating or recommending the use of gloves and face masks to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, proper disposal of such protective gear has become a growing concern. Social media has become littered with pictures of discarded plastic gloves and disposable face masks tossed carelessly on the ground in grocery store parking lots, floating in waterways, and cluttering hiking trails.
In March, Hong Kong was already grappling with a surge in mask pollution; one environmentalist told Reuters about a visit to an uninhabited beach where he found 70 masks on a 300-foot stretch of beach. In Antibes, environmental organizations are finding masks and gloves on the seabed of the Mediterranean. And across the United States, public health departments have had to issue advisories against throwing masks and gloves on the streets.
One Stop & Shop employee in Attleboro, Massachusetts, responded to one such Facebook post from her city’s mayor noting that she’s also found used gloves inside the grocery store and on produce displays, reports the Washington Post.
Not only does this potentially contaminated trash pose a health hazard to the underpaid sanitation workers and grocery store employees who clean it up, but like all garbage, it also could end up washing into the ocean, where it’ll either get eaten by marine animals or break down into dangerous microplastics.
The environmental threat is compounded by recent reversals in single-use plastic bans and the cancellation of trash clean-up events on beaches and in parks, like those in the San Francisco Bay Area, as cities try to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Cities get creative
But some destinations aren’t sitting back and waiting for change. Counties in New York and Masachusetts have already increased their fines for littering, and Antibes and Los Angeles have proposed similar actions.
In Thailand, the city of Bangkok is taking things a step further. After a successful anti-plastic campaign that culminated in a planned single-use bag ban for 2021, the country has seen an alarming 15 percent surge in plastic waste since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. This includes waste from an increase in food delivery services, as well as disposable masks.
In response, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has introduced red rubbish bins specifically for used face masks, according to the Bangkok Post. These bins will be placed in offices, health centers, and hospitals. Not only will the trash cans serve as a reminder to the public to properly dispose of their masks, but they will also make things more convenient and safer for waste disposal employees.
We may all be caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the environmental impact of protecting ourselves during this crisis, but until more cities find similarly simple solutions, we could all stand to be better about cleaning up after ourselves.
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Maggie Fuller Maggie Fuller is a San Francisco–based but globally oriented writer driven to provoke multicultural worldviews as a multimedia journalist. She covers sustainability, responsible travel, and outdoor adventure.