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Litter from discarded PPE imperils beaches, environment

Larry Swanson, director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, explained on Monday how tossing gloves and masks on sidewalks will eventually lead to contamination of waterways.  Credit: Newsday staff

Mother Nature may need some protection from personal protective equipment.

Filthier beaches, clogged roadways and a dirtier environment could be the consequence of litter from used surgical gloves, face masks, sanitizing wipes and other PPE donned and doffed by everyday people to minimize coronavirus transmission.

And it’s not just the litter that causes problems: some well-intentioned wearers and janitors are improperly discarding PPE into the recycling stream — instead of in the ordinary trash where it belongs — forcing workers at processing plants to hand-sort the potentially contaminated waste on conveyor belts, the industry says.  

Gloves, wipes and other items are being flushed down the toilet, instead of disposed of in the trash, clogging sewage treatment plants.

PPE have sold out early in stores and online, with some items still on back order. Internet searches for terms like “PPE,” “facemasks,”  “disposable gloves,” and “wipes” began spiking over the past several months after staying relatively flat for the prior 16 years, according to Google Trends data. And some jurisdictions including New York State have mandated the wearing of face coverings in public spaces: on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would distribute 7.5 million face coverings to the public in the coming weeks.

On Friday, his health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, was asked about PPE’s environmental impact: She said, “I’m aware of people littering with discarded PPE, and we would ask them not to do that.”

There is concern beyond the metropolitan area. For example, in Hong Kong, discarded face masks are accumulating on beaches and nature trails, leading to fears that marine life and wildlife habitats are endangered, according to a March report by Reuters.

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On Monday, Nassau Legis. Joshua Lafazan introduced a bill to explicitly prohibit the improper disposal of PPE during a public health crisis, according to Holly Curtis, a spokeswoman for the legislature's minority caucus. The fine would range from $250 to $1,000. 

In New York City, PPE’s trip to Long Island’s South Shore beaches can begin after an item is tossed on the sidewalk, washed away by a downpour into a storm drain, expelled into the East River, then into the harbor, and swept along by winds and ocean currents, said Larry Swanson, director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

The material — masks move faster than gloves because of surface area — could wash up anywhere from Jamaica Bay in Queens and Brooklyn, to Shinnecock Bay out east.

“One day it would be at Gilgo Beach, another day it would be out east, and another day it would be at Jones Beach,” Swanson said.

Improperly discarded PPE also poses a hazard to ocean wildlife such as turtles that might mistake the items for food. Marine organisms may also get tangled in it.

Swanson said it reminds him of other times when waste washed up from the city onto Long Island’s beaches — particularly in 1976 and 1988, when personal or medical waste discarded in the city made its way east and led to abandoned beaches and economic damage.  

Ted Timbers, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, said in an email that 97% of street litter is now prevented from reaching the waterways, with a combination of screens, catch basins, brooms and other means.

Timbers wrote that “the design of the City’s drainage system — which collects stormwater — has been upgraded/added to in order to capture any litter or debris that may wash into the system.”

On the Island, unlike in New York City, nearly all rainwater collects in pits around Nassau and Suffolk counties to recharge groundwater — so discarded PPE on the streets and in parking lots can clog the drains and flood nearby roads.

“You could get road-flooding and what have you, depending on how much debris is there,” he said.

Steve Changaris, New York State chapter director for the National Waste & Recycling Association, said that his member plants on Long Island and beyond have seen an increase in the amount of PPE “wish-cycling,” an industry term for putting an item that is nonrecyclable in the recycling bin in the hope it will be recycled. He says that it’s not just individual wearers but janitorial staff that might dump an entire container of PPE into the recycling bin incorrectly.

“People say, ‘Oh they’re blue gloves, they can be recycled,’ they put them in the recycling bin. That’s improper. They belong in the trash,” he said. He added: “if it’s in a recycling bin, if it gets into the line, it gums up the machine. It’s a tangler.”

While sorting is automated at some plants, at others, he said, human workers must pick through the items moving along on a conveyor belt.

Depending on the material, the virus can remain on an item for hours or days, according to the National Institutes of Health.

At hospitals and other medical facilities, where there’s been a rise in the amount of PPE used, there are procedures in place for where the items should go. They should go in the trash, unless it’s especially biohazardous and contaminated, in which case it would be considered medical waste.  

Across Northwell Health — New York State’s largest health care system, including on Long Island — orders for masks, gloves, gowns, face shields and other PPE have risen about 300% or 400%, comparing March and April of 2019 to the same period this year, according to Donald Ophals, the system’s assistant vice president for ancillary services.

The increase, Ophals notes, came even as the state ordered the cancellation of all elective medical procedures — where PPE must also be worn — in order to free up resources to treat the coronavirus.  

But litter of PPE isn’t a problem in the Northwell system, he said: Infection-control policies require hospital personnel to doff PPE into the trash before leaving the building.

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