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‘The face of litter has changed:’ Gloves, masks, PPE in trash proves to be problem for environmental groups

Even trash looks different during a global pandemic. Where one would usually see bottles, cans and wrappers, there’s now an abundance of discarded Latex gloves, masks and Lysol wipes.

Helen Lowman, the CEO of Keep America Beautiful, said recently that she’s noticed an uptick in personal protective equipment litter since March.

“I look at litter a lot,” she said. “Two weeks into the shelter-in-place orders, I was taking my dog on a walk, and I was like, ‘What are all these things?’ The face of litter has changed.”

Lowman said that while the typical types of litter haven’t decreased, PPE litter has certainly gone up, which is “exceptionally bad,” because those are items designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“These are things that could pose a danger to other people,” she said. “We’re all in this together. I understand people are scared and don’t want these items in their cars, but there are definitely ways of disposing of these things. The trash can is absolutely the best place.”

Lowman said the PPE litter is getting into drainage systems and waterways, while also being found in rivers, lakes and oceans.

“Then it will pose a danger to wildlife,” she said. “At this time, we’ve come together as a society in so many great ways, but we need nature and beautiful public spaces more than we’ve ever needed them before because we’ve all been stuck in our houses. To not treat it with the greatest respect and to litter is unfathomable to me.”

Keep America Beautiful had to postpone its spring Great American Cleanup, which usually consists of millions of volunteers participating in 20,000 cleanup events across the nation. The event will now run from June 1 through October, giving southern states an opportunity to work in cooler temperatures, Lowman said.

“The whole idea is that it’s a cleanup of America,” she said. “We hope that volunteers will still come out and participate.”

The consistency of the litter problem is why Myrna Newman, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Cleanways, and her staff were still going out individually to pick up trash throughout the beginning of the pandemic. Allegheny Cleanways is the Pittsburgh area affiliate of Keep America Beautiful. She said she advised volunteers to not pick up litter during the pandemic.

“We felt all PPE should be going to health care professionals, and we didn’t have enough for volunteers,” Newman said. “Within a week, we started hearing that the virus could stay on objects and that it’s probably best to not touch trash because you just don’t know.”

Deborah Klenotic, the deputy communications director for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, said that by mid-April, her department also noticed littered PPE in parking lots, along the side of the road and in local and state parks.

“I can’t give you a definitive reason for why it’s happening,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize that the latex or the nitrile gloves don’t decompose for at least two years. A lot of people just do not fathom how expensive it is for their municipalities to clean up the litter.”

The state’s Department of Transportation spends more than $12 million annually to clean up trash on the roads, Klenotic said.

“People don’t make the connection that some of that is taxpayer dollars and funding that could be so much better directed,” she said.

Robert Dubas, program coordinator for Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, said the organization typically participates in the spring Great American Clean Up, but had to cancel because of the pandemic.

“We can’t promote something like that if the state doesn’t want people gathering together,” Dubas said. “I myself have noticed the increase in litter, especially in the grocery store parking lots. I think with the trash along the sides of the road, a lot of municipal workers were temporarily laid off, so a lot of litter that normally would be picked up wasn’t being picked up either.”

David Ennis is head of the highway and facility maintenance department for Frederick County, Maryland. He said his crews saw an uptick in bulk litter, like furniture and appliances, while the county landfill was closed to the public for about two months.

Now that states are starting to open up again, Lowman said she is hopeful that more volunteers and cleanup events will be able to make a dent in the litter problem.

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, the Great American Cleanup was postponed to September. Matt Gratz, solid waste manager for Fort Wayne, said that cleaning up trash is something people can do individually to be socially distant.

“We have had neighborhood associations do that,” he said.

Keep Ohio Beautiful, meanwhile, has 42 affiliates that are starting to schedule events.

“It’s starting to build some momentum in Ohio, as we’re getting more and more people outside to clean up,” said Mike Mennett, the executive director of Keep Ohio Beautiful.

He said the group purchased litter grabbers for volunteers to use, as people may still be weary of coming in contact with trash.

“I think we’ll start to get a lot more activity with people picking up,” he said. “The people that want to be out there making a difference, they’re already doing it.”

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