Sitting at my “work-from-home” quarantine desk, I heard my alarm — time to change the laundry. Donning a mask, I walked down the hallway and opened the laundry room door.
I couldn’t help but fixate on the lone, inside-out, blue glove that someone had forgotten on top of the dryer.
The loss of life during this pandemic has been a hard enough cross to bear. Gloves and masks discarded aimlessly in public only serve to undermine our triumphs over this scourge.
Seeing this symbolic, likely germ-ridden glove so close to my home, I felt my mask of sanity slipping away.
Let’s all be better, please?
Pandemic waste — I’m fed up with seeing it where it shouldn’t be. Trash receptacles are ubiquitous in our modern age, yet currently they appear to be underused. If, instead of gloves and masks, it was batteries, plastic bottles, or nuclear waste haphazardly lying around, there would be a much stronger call to action.
While serial litterers toss their used personal protective equipment (PPE) because they don’t care, others drop it by accident or out of fear of coming into contact with the virus. Then, some try to discard their equipment safely and ecologically — but the reality is, there is little or no public guidance on how to do so.
I asked my family and friends how and where they should throw out their used equipment. Their most common answer? “I’m not sure.”
What we know about what we don’t know
A study in Poland found that nearly three-quarters of households did not know the correct disposal method for PPE. Researchers attributed this to a deficiency of communication between residents, local government, and waste collection companies.
This lack of communication and structure is hugely problematic for the environment and our own health and safety. To solve the PPE garbage crisis, institutional change within consumer disposal and municipal collection systems is required. Also, there must be a more widespread understanding about possible contagion.
Additional challenges of pandemic waste
While most of us can avoid handling discarded PPE, it’s part of the job for others. If used protection equipment isn’t being thrown away in secure separate bags, do exposed items pose a health risk to sanitation workers?
However, managing PPE outside of health care facilities in the same manner as medical waste is challenging, both logistically and financially. Cities are struggling to keep up with the increase in garbage and recycling due to the pandemic. Municipal COVID-waste collection is not a feasible option — we must urge cities to explore alternative solutions in the private sector.
The next step in lessening the environmental impacts of PPE is examining material reusability. Are there other options after collection besides burning or burying it? Throwing gloves and masks in with the recyclables might seem like a simple solution, but it’s not quite so easy.
The good news is that single-use protection equipment not used for medical purposes can be recycled or repurposed. However, it’s unlikely that your local collection company does it. Equally problematic is that most people don’t know this — just like they are unaware that plastic grocery bags shouldn’t go in the household recycling bin.
National messaging about how and when to wear masks, gloves, and face shields is abundant, but there just isn’t enough public information on how to properly dispose of used PPE in the mainstream media.
Instructions for disposal of “special waste” have been released for residents in cities such as Toronto, yet PPE garbage continues to accumulate.
Posting on social media or city websites isn’t enough. We need multiple mechanisms for the delivery and reinforcement of clear instructions to the public.
Thankfully, solutions to our pandemic waste problem have already begun to emerge, and we should all be running to adopt them. Companies such as TerraCycle and Kimberly-Clark are now transforming COVID-protection items in ways traditional recycling systems cannot. The resulting recycled material is used to manufacture new products.
Back to my laundry room
Instead of shedding my mask of sanity right there in the laundry room, I reminded myself of the progress we’ve made over the past year. If nothing else, human beings are adaptable. Then I properly disposed of the glove.
Combatting COVID-19 via protection device utilization and treatment development is why we are prevailing against it. Now, we must address the threat created by those same tools of protection: pandemic waste. Our waste has become a virus, and we need to develop a viable vaccine.
1. Pandemic waste is a problem to be taken seriously.
2. There is not nearly enough information about how to dispose of used PPE.
3. Thankfully, solutions are in the works.
4. Be kind, be considerate, and don’t litter!
Anne Carter Davis is a sustainability management student at Columbia University. This article originally appeared in the AIM Blog.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.