Masks and gloves are increasingly becoming common street trash, as Americans don them as safety precautions against COVID-19 and then discard them by the curb. To make matters worse, the PPE litter is more hazardous than normal garbage, as it has a higher risk of spreading the novel coronavirus. The issue has become so widespread, local law enforcement has begun taking a stance against it, with agencies reaching out to area residents to encourage proper disposal.
“We need to contain the spread of COVID-19 and do the right lawful thing by throwing these items in the trash,” the Swampscott Police Department in Massachusetts posted to Facebook alongside a photo of a Stop & Shop parking lot littered with PPE. “This is making a bad problem worse and possibly spreading COVID-19 to the people having to pick this trash up.”
The first offense for unlawful disposal of trash, the agency warns residents, is fineable up to $5,500.
Other essential workers — in addition to those in sanitation — are also actively worrying about the danger posed by discarded masks and gloves, as they litter the paths to their jobs.
“Thank you so very much for [addressing] this issue,” wrote Stop & Shop employee Kathleen Searle Nohelty in response to the police department’s post, “I have 5 young children at home, so not only am I putting myself at risk by going to work so they can shop and get what they need, but I am also putting my family at risk!”
In New York City, where wearing a face mask on public transit and in crowded areas is now mandatory, the increase in PPE litter has been shockingly apparent. “People are so awful,” wrote one observer in an Instagram post of assorted masks and gloves littering Brooklyn’s streets.
Not only is the trash a safety issue, a visible eyesore and a trash problem, it also harms the environment in deeper ways, by adding to microplastic pollution.
“The PPE is intended to help us fight a public health challenge, not create a plastic pollution problem,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, tells CNN.