The battle against COVID-19’s increasing trash level

A volunteer cleanup worker plucks a disposable mask from the water. (Photo: Tatyana Aksenova, via Shutterstock)

Nearly every morning for the last 12 years, San Francisco native Eva Holman has walked Baker Beach and collected trash. Located near the mouth of the Golden Gate, Baker is the iconic beach where the Golden Gate Bridge’s graceful red arc has provided the dramatic background for innumerable iconic photographs. Holman grew up nearby, and she lives so close to Baker Beach now that it’s essentially her backyard. During her twelve years of walks, she has found all sorts of trash washed up here, from the common plastic water bottles, cigarette butts, and coffee cups, to e-cigarettes abandoned plastic toys, and clothes. After recreational cannabis dispensaries opened in 2016, she started picking up a lot of dispensary related plastics. By late-March 2020, after COVID-19 hit, she started seeing PPE, or personal protective equipment, washed up among the beer bottles, soiled diapers, and food wrappers. Of the six to ten masks she finds each day, most are disposable.

The improper disposal of the single-use masks and rubber gloves that professionals call PPE is an international phenomenon. On June 8, The Guardian reported that a French nonprofit had found “algae-entangled masks and soiled gloves in the sea near Antibes,” and the Hong Kong-based OceanAsia found dozens of single-use masks on the uninhabited Soko Islands.

PPE is a new form of synthetic waste here. “It’s something we almost never saw before this.” — Eben Schwartz

During my family’s brief summer vacation in the eastern Oregon woods, we found a surprising number of COVID masks and gloves on state park grounds, and found two green rubber gloves and a soiled used disposable mask along twenty-foot stretch of Pendleton, Oregon’s Umatilla River. As the country’s most populous state, California is seeing increasing volumes of PPE litter in natural areas and public lands. Although PPE still accounts for only a small portion of California’s refuse, its appearance suggests a glut of COVID waste that maybe yet to come. Unfortunately, data is still being collected to more clearly determine the amount and type of PPE out there.

“Although we do not yet have any hard data,” Eben Schwartz, the California Coastal Commission’s Marine Debris Program Manager, said, “we have plenty of anecdotal evidence of the impact of PPE on California’s environment.” The California Coastal Commission hasn’t been able to hold formal cleanups or data-gathering events since March, so they won’t have hard data until the end of September, after their annual Coastal Cleanup. “But what I’ve been hearing from my organizers and volunteers all over the state is that there is a lot of PPE out on beaches.” There is always a lot of plastic in the environment, Schwartz says, but PPE is a new form of synthetic waste here. “It’s something we almost never saw before this.”

Many masks include synthetic fibers, and plastic doesn’t fully biodegrade. Out in the environment, plastics break into smaller and smaller pieces that eventually end up in seafood, wildlife, and human consumers. Some sources estimate that it takes 450 years for one synthetic, single-use mask to biodegrade.

““Rubber gloves, face masks of all types, and hand wipes – which have a plastic material in them – have become quite common to find everywhere.”  — Lynn Adams 

Unlike the public beaches that belong to the city of San Francisco, Baker Beach resides within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, so it is administered by the National Park Service, or NPS. In late-September, NPS said they didn’t have information to share specifically about PPE, only that Golden Gate National Recreation Area was experiencing high levels of visitation, and staff did urge visitors “to practice Leave No Trace principles and pack out their trash whenever possible.” In late August, San Francisco City Parks and Recreation told me, “Although our maintenance staff doesn’t track quantitative data about littered masks in SF parks, anecdotal evidence from our park managers suggests that this isn’t a significant problem at this time.” That might be true for some of their staff, but they might be missing the obvious. “And as far as I can tell,” said Holman, “no one from the City or NPS is out on the beach picking up. They are in the parking lots.”

Lynn Adams, President of the Pacific Beach Coalition, reports increased amounts of PPE on San Mateo area beaches, too. “The Pacific Beach Coalition volunteers are finding a lot of PPEs on the beaches and on our streets, trails and parking lots,” she said. “Rubber gloves, face masks of all types, and hand wipes – which have a plastic material in them – have become quite common to find everywhere.” Asked to estimate how much of an increase they have witness, she said, “Well, considering we would have found few to none prior to COVID, I would estimate it to be a good 1000% increase.”

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Holman’s concern for California’s environment and her city led her to start a monthly Baker Beach cleanup through the Surfrider Foundation ten years ago. She also volunteers with the California Coastal Commission’s annual cleanup.

Everything in the top 10 is single-use disposable plastics: plastic water bottles, caps, lids, plastic bags, although plastic bags have seen a dramatic decrease since the state of California passed bag ban laws.

The California Coastal Commission helps keep the state clean through two primary efforts: the year-round Adopt-A-Beach program, where a group of people commit to cleaning a beach at least three times per year, and the annual Coastal Cleanup Day, which takes place in September. Despite the name, Coastal Cleanup Day happens across the entire state, because trash is a statewide problem, and what happens in neighborhood streets and parks in California’s interior effects the coast. “Trash travels through storm drains, creeks, and rivers,” their website says, “to become beach and ocean pollution.”

CCC partners with a local organization, like the Oakland Public Works Department, provides them the resources they need to run the cleanups, and the local organization organizes the event at specific sites, finding site captains and recruiting volunteers for the cleanup. “Last year we had 75,000 people on Coastal Cleanup Day,” said Schwartz. “We generally bring out anywhere between 65,000 and 80,000 people for that one event. Or Adopt-A-Beach groups average around 60,000 additional volunteers throughout the course of the year.”

Every year, Cleanup Day volunteers use a data card or app to collect information about the kinds of material they find. An organization called the Ocean Conservancy compiles that information into a database, broken down by the type of material found, and makes it publicly available. Cigarette butts are always the number one trash item, accounting for 35% to 40% of everything volunteers find each year. Aside from aluminum cans, everything in the top 10 is single-use disposable plastics: plastic water bottles, caps, lids, plastic bags, although plastic bags have seen a dramatic decrease since the state of California passed bag ban laws.

“It’s not like there’s a single polluter out there that we can identify and take action against. It comes from basically everywhere.” — Eben Schwartz

“PPE is a diminishingly small proportion compared to what’s coming from plastic films, bottles, caps, and lids and all the single-use disposable plastics,” said Schwartz. “This is one of the reasons I want the data for the cleanup since September, because I want to see by proportion how much PPE is actually out there compared to these other forms of plastic that we traditionally find at our cleanup events. …Pre-COVID, humanity dumped an average of 18 billion pounds of plastic into the world’s oceans every year. That’s an enormous plastic load that breaks up and eventually becomes pollution.”

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It’s easy to assume that making recycling easier for people encourages them to recycle. But even with available trash cans in parks and on city streets, trash ends up all over the place. So how about PPE? Is there a way to curb COVID waste?

“That’s one of the tough parts about this issue is that there’s so many sources,” said Schwartz. “It’s not like there’s a single polluter out there that we can identify and take action against. It comes from basically everywhere. It’s the most non-point source pollution that you can imagine. There’s certainly some elements of just plain littering going on, but there’s also wind picking stuff up out of trash cans. There’s things that are properly disposed of. There is some evidence that shows that trash cans are actually a trigger for people to litter, where people will put stuff next to the trashcan instead of in the trash can, or the trash can doesn’t get the maintenance it requires, so trash will fall out. There is also a lot of leakage throughout our entire waste management system, from production to transport to consumption. What we see is the vast majority of trash that enters the ocean in California isn’t beach trash – it’s not coming from beachgoers – it’s coming from inland areas and urban areas, and it’s washing through stormwater systems into the ocean. I always tell people any piece of trash that you see on the street is a piece of marine debris waiting to happen.”

Because of litter’s origins, it is difficult to imagine ways to curb PPE litter on the consumer side, especially in a way that doesn’t discourage the public from wearing masks in the first place.

It includes overt or implied messages that disposable masks are the safer, preferable choice to reusable masks.

Since 1947, the U.S. Forest Service’s Smokey the Bear character has famously advised the public “Only you can prevent wildfires.” (Smokey is the longest-running public service announcement in U.S. history.) Jebediah Smith Redwoods State Park even provides visitors a video about how to minimize the impact of human food on native wildlife. They call it their approach “Keep It Crumb Clean.” Maybe there is an opportunity for ad agencies to create supportive, informative mottos for COVID waste akin to the popular “Pack it in, pack it out” idea encouraging campers not to leave behind trash – something like “Mask up, but trash up, too” or “Put it in the can.”

“We haven’t talked about advertising slogans for PPE trash,” Schwartz said, “mainly because we’re trying to be sensitive to the fact that we really want people to be wearing masks right now, so but it is something that more awareness is raised about it, the more recognition will get, and hopefully they’ll be a greater public ethic around proper disposal.”

Although Holman doesn’t dispute PPE’s essential role in slowing the spread of COVID-19, she points out that the problem of PPE litter goes deeper than improper disposal. It includes overt or implied messages that disposable masks are the safer, preferable choice to reusable masks. “My view from the beach is that disposables have very little or no value to consumers and are left littered and discarded with no thought,” she said. “I think it’s time to start championing reuse: masks, bottles, food containers. It’s the disposables I am finding out there every day.”

“It’s a unique challenge that we’re facing during what is hopefully a very unique time in our lives,” says Schwartz. “We do need to do a better job of messaging around this and encouraging people to handle these things properly while still using them properly. I don’t think we’ve cracked that nut yet. We’re going to be using the data we collect during the September cleaning events to try to get this message out in a much stronger way.”

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