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The Litter Wave Nobody’s Talking About

Litter and plastic pollution are problems that have plagued society long before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as disposable personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, becomes more common place, conservationists warn that the pandemic could spark a harmful surge in plastic pollution. This is bad news, particularly in Canada where Canadians face a growing litter problem.

Litter already a problem

In Ontario, the average person generates 1 tonne of waste annually, and some of this waste doesn’t make it to the garbage can. The Government of Ontario’s website estimates at least 4% of Ontarios are daily litterbugs, contributing to litter filling Ontario’s bodies of water. The Government of Canada estimates that 10,000 tonnes of plastic debris enter Ontario’s lakes and rivers each year. With the demand skyrocketing for masks and gloves, and the increased use of single disposable plastic items, this amount may increase and like any other single disposable product, if improperly disposed, the environmental consequences can be huge.   

According to Scott Peck, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer/Director of Watershed Planning & Engineering at the Hamilton Conservation Authority in Ontario, litter causes two major problems for the environment. One is that litter is unsightly, the garbage destroys the beauty of a community. As well, litter begets litter, one piece of litter on the ground signals others to litter. Litter also poses a threat to wildlife. Every year, millions of animals die from ingesting or being entangled in litter.

Scott says: “Wildlife is attracted to garbage and can adjust to become dependent on the litter as a food source.  When this happens, the animal becomes unable to survive independently, and may end up dying or living unhealthily.”

While Scott said that their conservation area hasn’t noticed a direct impact specifically from PPE litter, the issue of litter remains. “The issue in conservation areas is people coming in and leaving their waste behind when they leave,” Scott explains, “This could include masks but also things like diapers, and food.”

He urges people to practice “packing out what you pack in.” This prevents the litter in the first place and is best practice for every disposable item from food scraps, to face masks.

Proper disposal of PPE

The Government of Canada recommends people dispose of face coverings and PPE by throwing them into a lined garbage bag, and thoroughly washing your hands afterwards. They warn that under no circumstances should you discard face coverings on the ground. Although the government advises against littering facemasks, this doesn’t stop people from littering them. If you see someone littering a mask, picking it up may not be the best idea.

Picking up PPE litter could be hazardous

Scott explains that although it is a personal choice to pick up litter, he is hesitant to recommend people do this. In the Hamilton conservation area, there are staff who pick up the litter equipped with their own safety and personal protective equipment.  

“If people do decide to pick up the litter they need to ensure to use disinfectant and wash their hands immediately, or try to avoid touching the garbage directly by using a plastic bag, or something else to pick it up,” Scott says. “The takeaway really here is it’s better to bring the litter to the attention of a staff member.”

It is important people consider their health and safety when deciding to pick up litter, particularly as spread of the coronavirus increases. According to a report published in Lancet, the coronavirus has been found to last on disposable surgical masks for at least seven days. This makes the issue of litter not only an environmental and wildlife concern, but also a public health issue. The presence of contaminating virus on the surface of masks littered, is a health concern for anyone who touches them.  Litter is already a safety hazard, since it is a breeding ground for rodents and bacteria, now the risk of coronavirus on littered PPE adds another concern.

Although the talk of environmental impact of PPE in Canada seems hypothetical, some parts of the world are beginning to see PPE litter. Improperly disposed masks and gloves are being found on sidewalks, beach shores and parks, along side countless other litter. Inevitably, masks and gloves have already found their way into the sea.

Will PPE be the next big pollution problem?

Divers in the Mediterranean have found dozens of masks, and gloves beneath the sea’s waves. Although massive amounts of litter aren’t yet being seen, conservationists worry the litter hints to the start of the world’s next big pollution problem. Disposable masks have an estimated lifespan of 450 years, having lasting environmental consequences for the planet.

Dr. Laura Foster, the head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society says, “Single use plastic has been used increasingly during the pandemic, but we need to ensure this isn’t a permanent backwards step.”

The question is: how do we do this, and ensure disposable PPE doesn’t become the planet’s next plastic water bottle?

The answer is not straight forward. Some people argue the case of personal responsibility. Pointing fingers at the consumer to stop their litterbug habits and prevent the litter. There are options for people to wear reusable PPE, such as cloth masks to limit their usage of a single use plastic item. However, in the conversation about littering we need to talk about all parties involved. At least some blame must be placed on industries making products in a convenient-oriented economy.

Throughout the history of litter-worldwide there has been one constant; the production of trash including plastic goods has continued to grow. Without businesses creating disposable products and packaging there would be no litter. Business capitalizes off these disposable products.  As an increasing amount of governments mandate masks, and demand for PPE continues to increase, it is important that we reflect on how personal, business and government decisions are impacting our planet’s long-term health.

 In an age of countless pressing environmental concerns, the time to talk about the foreseeable issues of PPE litter is now. By starting a conversation, together can we put an end to the foreseen wave of PPE litter for the long-term health of people, wildlife, and the planet.

Megan Deak

Megan Deak is an environmentalist with a passion for human-wildlife coexistence, animal rights, and living sustainably with the land. My hometown is where my love of animals, and nature began. She grew up surrounded by trails, forests, and plenty of wildlife. Watching each organism in the forest interact was one of her favourite ways to spend time. Megan is an artist and aspiring biologist/researcher, studying at University of Guelph.

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