The problem with PPE: how littered masks, gloves and wipes affect the environment

Local News

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Even as coronavirus vaccines roll out across the country, public health experts warn we can’t abandon our masks any time soon. 

As long as we’re still wearing them, they’re still ending up on the ground. 

10 On Your Side first reported the new problem of PPE litter back in late April, when mask wearing was not yet widespread.  

Now, nearly eight months into Virginia’s mask mandate, the problem has gotten more notice. 

Katie Register, executive director of Longwood University’s Clean Virginia Waterways, oversees an annual litter pick-up where every piece recovered is categorized and logged. 

“The data our volunteers collect always tells a story, and the story of 2020 definitely included a lot of personal protection equipment, PPE, we found masks and gloves and even sanitizing wipes,” Register said. 

PPE only made up about 1% of the trash collected last year, but Register said it’s still a concern because it’s a whole new category in the 26-year history of the clean-up. 

In Norfolk, volunteers with the Ghent Neighborhood League noticed the same issue as they picked up 600 pounds of litter in August. 

“It was a bit of a shock,” board member Paige Rose said of finding masks, gloves and wipes. “I think it was a sign of the times.” 

Unfortunately, Register says, the problem won’t just go away once the pandemic does. 

“A problem with plastics is that after being in the environment for some time, they start to break up into smaller pieces,” she said. “They don’t biodegrade, they don’t go away, they become smaller and smaller and smaller.” 

After the Ghent clean up, Rose said she began researching litter more, and found out that it affects ecosystems well beyond where it falls in a sidewalk or parking lot.  

“Most of the litter, if it had not been picked up, would have entered the gutters and gone into the storm drains and emptied right out into the Hague, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay and further on our oceans,” she said. 

Animal advocacy organizations have reported that animals can become tangled in the straps of masks, or may ingest PPE litter.  

While PPE is a critical part of fighting the coronavirus, Register says it does not have to come at the expense of our rivers and oceans and animals.  

“We need to protect ourselves and we need to protect other people,” she said. “But do look for the options that are better for the environment.” 

Register and Rose recommend buying a reusable face mask, snipping the ear loops before discarding disposable masks and disposing properly of wipes. 

“On the back [of the container], there’s a tiny little sentence that says ‘Do not flush.’ I wish that were a larger message,” Register said. “These are not biodegradable, and they’re very bad for our wastewater treatment plants, so use your PPE responsibly.” 

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