Pandemic PPE Poses Environmental Threat

Improperly discarded masks and gloves polluting rivers, lakes, oceans

Photo: Jack Beam holds a discarded mask he found floating in Glen Lake in August.

By Nicole Hayes

Nikki Hayes, who grew up in Elk Rapids, Michigan, is a FLOW intern this fall. Currently a junior at Loyola University Chicago (LUC), she has spent her life close to the Great Lakes.

Face masks, gloves, eye protection, and other forms of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) have become an important part of our daily life during the Coronavirus pandemic. But as states have reopened and people ventured out more, their improper disposal of this protective gear has threatened the environment.

Michigan has seen a noticeable increase of improperly disposed PPE in parking lots, streets, beaches, lakes, and parks. The Michigan State Police have reminded Michiganders that used face masks, gloves, and other personal protective wear belong in the trash can. If Michiganders litter with their PPE, the state warns they could face a fine of up to $225.

The Environmental Science and Technology Journal reported in June that an estimated average of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used per month globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. The synthetic and non-biodegradable materials in non-reusable masks, surgical masks, and gloves take hundreds of years to break down in the environment. 

Significant amounts of PPE are finding their way to rivers, lakes, oceans, and beaches. Glen Lake resident Jack Beam posed for this photo in August after finding a mask floating in Glen Lake. Discarded PPE can harm surrounding wildlife as it spills into storm drains and enters nearby rivers and lakes unfiltered. Masks clogged in pipes contributed to a sewage backup at a Traverse City elementary school during heavy rains last week. Gloves, many masks and sanitizing wipes contain plastic, which breaks down into microplastics that attract pesticides and other harmful chemicals, officials with the Citizens Campaign for the Environment said. Marine life could ingest these microplastics, which can result in death.

In addition to PPE, the increased use of disinfectant wipes during the pandemic is causing environmental problems. Macomb County reported removing 4,000 pounds of wipes a week per pump station in May. In March, the town of East Jordan saw an influx of disinfectant wipes being flushed down toilets. “Wipes are a recurring problem for sewer or septic systems,” said Scott Dean, a spokesman at the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. When wipes and forms of PPE materials are flushed, they plug collection systems. Wastewater treatment plant operators are forced to manually open and remove the clog while exposing themselves to countless germs and bacteria.

The solution is simple: Dispose of masks, gloves, and other forms of PPE in the trash. These materials are not to be recycled. Across the country, various companies are launching PPE cleanup events. A Chicago-based company, iPromo, has launched a coast-to-coast effort to reduce PPE litter. For every five pieces of PPE properly disposed, the company will donate one mask to a charity in need. Their goal is to donate 250,000 masks in 2020.

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Improperly discarded masks and gloves polluting rivers, lakes, oceans