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Com’on People, Pick Up Your PPE Trash

Issue 255.5

Shani R. Friedman Apr 28

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the United States. and everyone now being encouraged (if not ordered) to cover their faces when they’re out in public, one of the unfortunate consequences is that people are suddenly using a lot more paper masks and plastic and rubber gloves — much of which has been ending up on the ground.

While we do our best to stay healthy, let’s do a solid by the city we love by safely disposing of PPE.

When I go out for essential items and fresh air in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I’m constantly seeing discarded masks and gloves littering the streets, sidewalks and inevitably making their way into the sewers. Friends from Inwood to Tribeca to Forest Hills report seeing the same coronavirus litter. 

The indiscriminate disposal of personal protection equipment (PPE) is adding to the virus of consumption that the planet faces now and in the climate crisis to come. 

New York City remains the epicenter of coronavirus whose spread is aided by all the cast-off PPE underfoot. The medical detritus on the ground can make its way onto our clothes, and according to medical experts, the virus can live for an undetermined amount of time on fabrics and shoes — thus creating scary situations like a Brooklyn mother who realized that the pile of leaves her son had been rolling around in had a used medical glove in it. This needless risk means more people potentially getting sick, burdening a healthcare system that is already confronting enough challenges daily.

Contaminated plastic and paper are also harmful to animals and, as the local news reported just this week, two pet cats have now tested positive for COVID-19 in New York State. If the virus gets on pets’ collars and leashes, their owners can transfer it to their hands and clothes. Dogs, birds and the rest of the local animal kingdom sniff, chew and swallow discarded items, especially if food has also been dropped among them.

Animals, whether infected or not, could also affect the availability of medical care for humans. Veterinarians are medical doctors, and have been called upon in Illinois and other states to assist during this crisis. When there aren’t enough healthy nurses and doctors in our hospitals right now, vets should be available to help, instead of spending precious time tending to animals that require urgent care because of the carelessness of some humans. Their medical supplies, including ventilators, are also invaluable at this time as hospitals in New York and elsewhere are confronting serious shortages. 

All of this waste will linger when the pandemic is over. Before the coronavirus hit our shores, Americans were already consuming a tremendous amount of plastic annually: 220 pounds per person, the Washington-based Globalist Research Center said in 2017. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 91 percent of all plastic worldwide is never recycled. Nearly half of that is single-use plastics, such as gloves.

In New York, a state law banning retailers from providing plastic bags for most purchases except for food storage was scheduled to go into effect March 1, but has been postponed until June 15 because of the epidemic. The state Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that over 23 billion plastic bags are typically used each year, with the results “seen stuck in trees, as litter in our neighborhoods, and floating in our waterways.”

If nothing else, the pandemic is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our better selves. And so many of us have been over these last weeks, whether we’re checking our elderly neighbors, doing errands for those who can’t leave their homes or simply applauding for all the essential personnel every night. While we do our best to stay healthy, let’s do a solid by the city we love by safely disposing of PPE so there’s a beautiful city waiting for us when this is over.  

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