Litter in the Time of Coronavirus

Some of the gloves and masks found in and around downtown Vista between April 14 and May 1.

Most of the beaches in San Diego County closed at the beginning of April, and instead of my walks at the coast, I began venturing through my neighborhood to the small Main Street area of town. Every time I go out, I see gloves and masks that have been abandoned in parking lots, tossed on sidewalks, or jettisoned in gutters—and I am not alone. 

People in cities across the country and around the world are witnessing the same thing. I understand that some of the items could have been dropped accidentally, but even if that’s the case, the carelessness is disheartening. As litter, the discards are disgusting. They not only create blight, they harm the environment, and when you consider that the gloves and masks could be vectors for COVID-19, it’s downright frightening.

Map of gloves found on my walking route.

On May 1st, face coverings became mandatory in San Diego County when “in public and within 6′ of someone that is not a household member.” Thankfully, most people had already been wearing fabric masks that can be washed and reused indefinitely, which helps keep others safe while reducing the waste caused by single-use PPE.

On the other hand, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend gloves for the general public at all, citing that they give people a false sense of security and “failing to change them often is the same thing as failing to wash your hands.” People who wear latex gloves make the mistake of leaving them on for extended periods of time and end up touching lots of things, which can spread the virus. Sadly, underpaid sanitation workers, grocery store employees, and gas station attendants are most likely the ones who will have to pick up these potential biohazards.

81 Gloves and Masks

In addition, littered masks and gloves that go unnoticed can become environmental hazards. In fact, I frequently found gloves at the beach prior to the coronavirus crisis, and I am quite sure that it won’t be too long before even more start washing up. Out of respect for our essential workers, and for the sake of the natural environment, single-use masks and gloves must be discarded appropriately. Ultimately, we can all help keep the unsung heroes in our communities out of harms way, while also protecting our oceans and sea life. 

For more about medical waste found on the beach, read my post entitled “Yuck.”

Please read The Glove Challenge in The New Yorker to learn what others have been doing about the glove scourge, and take a look at What’s Next for Earth: Quarantine Discoveries to check out inspiring works of art created during the pandemic.

UPDATE #1: As of June 12th, I have found 348 gloves and masks on my daily walks around town. Over time, the number of gloves has decreased while masks have increased. I believe that this is due to San Diego County’s mask mandate. In addition, people have become more aware of the fact that COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets and is not easily spread through touching surfaces. In fact, the CDC states that the “transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces has not been documented.” However, recent research indicates that masks can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19. Please consider reusable fabric masks, but no matter which type you choose, please handle them carefully and dispose of them properly. 

UPDATE #2: When I went back to in-person work in August 2020, my daily walks became less consistent, and even so, I have documented 1,528 pieces of PPE to date. On February 20th, I did an onramp cleanup as part of Caltrans’ Adopt-A-Highway program and found 21 gloves and masks scattered along the roadside along with lots of other litter. In addition, I have been venturing to the beach more often lately, and as expected, I have been finding masks and gloves every time I go.

IN THE NEWS—The image below has been used in several publications, including the following:

Brill—The effects of COVID-19 litter on animal life (A research study)

The Nation—Byproducts of the Pandemic

CNN—Used Masks and Gloves are Showing Up on Beaches

Cambridge University Press— ‘COVID waste’ and social media as method: an archaeology of personal protective equipment and its contribution to policy

PLastic Oceans— A New Type of Ocean Pollution: Coronavirus Waste

MAHB Stanford—Litter in the Time of Coronavirus

USC Annenberg Media—How ‘Ocean Friendly’ initiatives in San Diego are combatting the rise in COVID-19 Plastic Pollution

256 Gloves and Masks
A map of my meanderings.
321 Gloves and Masks (graphed from April 14 to June 7)
An Animation

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