Helen Lowman looks at litter a lot. It’s her job. But while walking her dog in Westport, Connecticut, in March, she noticed an alarming trend. First she passed some dirty wipes on the ground. Then there were gloves. And finally a mask. Four months later, she said the litter of personal protective gear has only gotten worse.
As more people wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, more personal protective equipment, or PPE, has been found as litter around the world.
The issue has prompted environmental organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency, to sound the alarm. Some local governments, like Suffolk County in New York, have instituted fines for littering involving masks and gloves, and police departments, like the one in Swampscott, Massachusetts, have warned that improperly discarding PPE is a crime.
“This pandemic is causing the face of litter to change,” said Lowman, chief executive of Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit group that organizes cleanups. “We’re seeing a real shift in what is in the litter stream.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that the general public wear reusable cloth face coverings, but disposable masks are readily available; a pack of 50 can be purchased for around $30.
Experts say the risk of catching coronavirus from a discarded mask is minimal, but the litter is causing concern for other reasons: Used masks and gloves, which cannot be recycled, pose a problem for the environment.
Disposable masks and gloves aren’t necessarily better or worse than any other kind of litter, according to experts.
Like other waste, a mask could be mistaken for food by wildlife. Or a heavy rain could wash it into a storm drain or a river and eventually the ocean, posing a risk for marine ecosystems.
“It’s quite alarming where these are ending up,” said Gary Stokes, founder of OceansAsia, a marine conservation group. “It’s not just the beaches. We’re getting them out in nature, but also downtown; you see them on the streets, in the gutter, on public transport.”
In February, on a routine trip to the uninhabited Soko Islands off the coast of Hong Kong, Stokes collected around 70 masks along roughly 100 yards of beach.
“We’ve seen it already with whales and turtles with plastic bags, and with masks it’s the same thing,” he said. “Another piece of trash for the next generation.”
Like drinking bottles, fast-food containers and other plastic material that ends up in the ocean, masks collect algae, attracting small fish that in turn attract larger fish, he said. A dolphin or whale could mistake a mask for food, and the mask could get caught in the animal’s digestive tract, which could result in death.
Over time, plastics in the ocean can break down into smaller particles known as microplastics. Those particles become coated in toxic substances and are eaten or absorbed by marine life and could eventually make their way into human food, experts say.
Around 8 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean annually, according to research, and environmentalists fear that PPE litter, as well as more home delivery packaging, will worsen the situation.
A University College London study found that if everyone in the United Kingdom wore a new disposable mask every day for a year, it would result in 66,000 metric tons of plastic waste, plus 57,000 metric tons of packaging.
After seeing an alarming number of masks washed ashore over the last few months, Stokes and his team have been advocating for reusable masks: “We’re all starting to realize this virus is here to stay, and we’ve got to start thinking about this in a sustainable way.”
Though everything a human touches is probably covered with bacteria and viruses, most used masks don’t pose a risk, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Masks used by the public are not considered biohazardous, as masks used in a hospital or litter such as bloody bandages or syringes would be.
“This is more of an etiquette issue,” Adalja said.
It’s not guaranteed that mask litter contains infectious pathogens, said Seema S. Lakdawala, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine whose research focuses on the transmission of influenza viruses.
Lakdawala said she carries a plastic bag in her purse for easy disposal of her mask when she isn’t near a trash can.
The coronavirus can’t survive for long on a surface like a mask, said Linsey Marr, of Virginia Tech, an expert in the transmission of viruses by aerosol. A recent study found that the virus has a half-life of around seven hours on solid plastic — meaning half of the virus will die in that time — but the survival time would most likely be shorter on a mask because of its porous material, she said.
In order to become infected through a used mask, the person would have to pick up an infected mask minutes after it had been discarded and transfer a substantial amount of the live virus to the eyes, nose or mouth.
The virus is fragile, and if the mask has been exposed to the sun, transmission is highly unlikely, Marr said, noting that the virus could survive longer if an infected mask was in a shady area or had been dropped at night.
Airborne transmission from a mask dropped as litter would be equally slim.
“Once something that size gets onto a surface, it’s not going to come off spontaneously,” Marr said. “It would take someone shaking it around.”
A Coast-to-Coast Effort
Shelter-in-place orders put a pause on some regular community cleanups, but groups across the country have begun gathering again, with volunteers wearing masks and collecting trash 6 feet apart from one another.
Save Our Shores, a group that cleans litter from beaches in Santa Cruz, California, takes maximum precautions: Members go alone or in small groups, bring hand sanitizer and wear disposable gloves for safety, even though it creates more plastic waste, said Katherine O’Dea, executive director of the organization.
“The bigger message is, ‘Come on, people; don’t litter that stuff,’” O’Dea said. “Good for you that you’re following the guidelines and wearing masks and being considerate of others, but you’ve just blown it if you throw it on the ground or leave it in your shopping cart or at the beach.”
Some organizations, including the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, based in New York and Connecticut, have urged grocery stores to put trash cans in parking lots.
On a recent trip to the beach, Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, noticed fewer masks scattered in the sand than she had over the past few months. Efforts to encourage proper disposal have helped, she said, but lots of litter remains.
“The bottom line is we don’t want a public health crisis to add to the plastic pollution crisis,” she said. “The answer is simple and the act is easy: Just throw out your PPE.”