1. News
  2. /
  3. Health

The coronavirus has given us a new kind of plastic waste. Where does it go?

Local officials say used masks and gloves should go in the garbage. Scientists worry personal protective gear tossed on the street could pollute the world’s oceans, which are already contaminated with harmful microplastics.
A disposable mask lies on the pavement amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Petrol Mart, a gas station, in Thonotosassa on Monday.
A disposable mask lies on the pavement amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Petrol Mart, a gas station, in Thonotosassa on Monday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jun. 17, 2020

These chaotic times have produced a lot of trash.

Amid the mishmash — or maybe in the bushes at the park down the road — is a type of garbage that was unfamiliar to most Americans four months ago. Masks and rubber gloves, donned as personal protective equipment, are marketed as disposable. They get dirty, smelly, stretched out. Then what?

Scientists worry all this new garbage could further pollute the world's oceans, which are already contaminated with harmful microplastics.

“I’ve seen the masks and the gloves just discarded on the ground,” said Shannon Gowans, a professor of biology and marine science at Eckerd College. “Gill from ‘Finding Nemo’ had it right: All drains do lead to the ocean.”

Related: 4 billion particles of tiny plastics pollute Tampa Bay, study finds

The Environmental Protection Agency issued guidance in May to “keep disinfectant wipes, gloves, masks, other PPE and medical waste out of recycling bins.” Local officials urge residents to bag the gear and toss it. That has not, of course, kept litter off the streets.

A discarded mask is pictured on Monday in St. Petersburg.
A discarded mask is pictured on Monday in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Take a long enough walk and you will probably see a blue glove abandoned in the grass or a cloth mask tugging at the leaves. Mark Benfield, a professor in the Louisiana State University Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, was jogging in his own neighborhood when he decided to start a tracking project.

Using a fitness app and his phone to take pictures of trash, he circles the same route now every few days, charting coronavirus-related litter. He solicits similar fieldwork from “citizen scientists” in cities across the country, and as far away as Turkey and China.

“I’ve already seen gloves in our stormwater systems,” Benfield said. As part of ongoing work, he uses a drone to survey canals in Louisiana. “Once they’re in there, they’re already on their way to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Plastics do not fully degrade in the water, instead breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces that animals are more likely to ingest. Scientists say they find microplastics throughout the marine ecosystem. In Tampa Bay, Gowans said, researchers have found them in sediment and in manatees.

Benfield looks at a floating rubber glove and imagines a jellyfish. He thinks of a sea turtle swallowing one by mistake. He never saw protective equipment before in studies of microplastic pollution, he said, but over the course of the pandemic he has identified new trends.

When doctors started urging people to wear masks, he said, he saw more in the litter. He finds fewer gloves now, but wipes are still common. Where he spots one piece of trash, he tends to see several, like the first is a magnet. He assumes the litterers feel a little guilty: Garbage is often tucked behind trees.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“People know they shouldn’t toss this stuff into the environment,” Benfield said.

His project as of last week did not include anyone performing surveys in Florida.

A discarded glove sits amid leaves Monday in St. Petersburg.
A discarded glove sits amid leaves Monday in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Residential waste has soared everywhere during the pandemic, both garbage and recycling, coinciding with when people were told to stay at home, said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. Household pickups rose by as much as 25 percent, he said, including more glass bottles (perhaps people drinking at home) and cardboard (from all those shipped packages), while commercial loads dropped in turn.

“We’ve seen a very slight uptick in what we call contamination, in the wrong material being placed in the blue bin,” Biderman said.

Tampa Bay sanitation leaders say they have not noticed a rise in recycling loads tainted by protective gear. The most obvious change, they said, has been a surge in people disposing of lawn trimmings and old furniture. What better time than a pandemic for some spring cleaning?

“We just got overwhelmed with people that were doing cleanouts,” said John Power, Pasco County’s solid waste director.

April and May brought the biggest shifts to Pinellas, with residential waste rising by as much as 17 percent compared to last year. Commercial tonnage — from closed restaurants, offices and stores — plummeted by about 25 percent.

A lot of garbage here is incinerated, including in Pinellas, said Catherine Eichner, a solid waste program manager. The energy is used for utility power.

A discarded mask was tangled in the grass in St. Petersburg on Monday.
A discarded mask was tangled in the grass in St. Petersburg on Monday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Some manufacturers may have programs to take back materials, said Travis Barnes, Hillsborough County’s recycling coordinator, but those would be largely built for hospitals. Either way, he said, they would be overwhelmed now.

Recycling still sometimes involves sorting by hand, said Robert Turner, assistant sanitation director in St. Petersburg. Masks and gloves that could have been worn by a sick person are an obvious hazard.

“You certainly don’t want to put it in a can and send it down for someone else to come into contact with,” he said. City workers have checked blue bins and haven’t run across personal protective equipment yet.

“Our biggest offender still is people wanting to dispose of plastic bags,” Turner said.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

HOW CORONAVIRUS IS SPREADING IN FLORIDA: Find the latest numbers for your county, city or zip code.

THE CORONAVIRUS SCRAPBOOK: We collected your stories, pictures, songs, recipes, journals and more to show what life has been like during the pandemic.

SO YOU WANT TO LEAVE YOUR HOUSE? Read these 10 tips first

UNEMPLOYMENT Q&A: We answer your questions about Florida unemployment benefits

GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.

HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.