Green Notes: Unmasking Litter


by Nancy Olson, Palo Alto First United Methodist Women

This last June It did look like we would be seeing the end, or at least the easing, of pandemic restrictions — fewer places where facial masks were required, for example, but now in August it seems we are back to using them again. Vaccines were developed in record time to combat COVID-19.  Litter in the time of the pandemic, it turns out, frustratingly defies solution.

A year ago, the idea that disposable face – masks, gloves, and wipes could become global environmental pollutants was not a pressing concern.  Personal protective equipment, PPE for short, was seen as essential for preventing the spread of COVID-19.  No one imagined just how much of it would be needed, for so long.  Then production exploded – and now the litter is inescapable.

You are out for your daily walk.  You see a face – mask on the ground.  Few want to touch what has shielded someone’s potentially virus-laden breath.  So there it lies until it blows away – and that elemental problem is rapidly changing the landscape around the world, from grocery store parking lots to beaches on uninhabited islands.

Scientists are collecting information that documents the use and disposal of PPE on a global scale —i.e. face masks or face shields that are discarded every day – 1.8 billion plus daily.

All may be called disposable, because they are cheap enough to be used once and then thrown away.  But they don’t actually go away. Face-masks, gloves, and wipes are made from multiple plastic fibers, primarily polypropylene, that will remain in the environment for decades, fragmenting into smaller and smaller micro plastics and nano plastics.  Their litter is blown into rivers and streams, which carry them to seas. Scientists are recording their presence on South American beaches, river outlets in Bangladesh, on the coast of Kenya, and on uninhabited islands in Hong Kong.

Discarded PPE has clogged street drains from New York City to Nairobi, and gummed up machinery in the municipal sewage system in Vancouver.

PPE are not recyclable and should not be added to any household recycling bin.  They can contain a mix of paper and polymers that cannot be separated into pure streams of single materials for recycling.  They also get caught in recycling machinery, causing breakdowns.  (PPE used in medical facilities is disposed of as hazardous medical waste.)

The pandemic has also seen increased production of disposable packaging, as consumers have bought more takeout food, and as bans of single-use plastics, including shopping bags, were suspended because of fears that re-usables would spread the virus.  At the same time, in part due to cuts in cash-strapped municipal budgets, a third of the recycling companies in the United States have been partially or completely shuttered.


  • Don’t be a litterbug!
  • Wear washable cloth masks when possible.
  • Pack used PPE into a plastic bag, seal it, and put it in the trash (NOT recyclables)

Hopefully we will see the end of the need for PPE in our near future since we have vaccines available.  Not so for some other countries.

But the need to be aware of how we dispose of our garbage and unwanted items will remain – litter is an ongoing problem.  It is unsightly, unhealthy, and expensive.  We can contribute greatly to the control, by being individually aware, by caring about our environment.

Thank you, Nancy Olson

One thought on “Green Notes: Unmasking Litter

  1. K Stone

    Thank you, Nancy, for bringing awareness, an unfortunate sign of the times. Appreciate the reminder we all must do our part. Thanks!

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