Discarded Face Mask Photo

A used face mask hangs off the fence along Front Street in downtown Traverse City on Tuesday. Littering of used personal protection equipment is causing issues amid the COVID pandemic.

TRAVERSE CITY — The irony is not lost on Michelle Klein.

The dirty sanitizing wipes, the used face masks and latex gloves that are found on the ground at gas stations, in parking lots as well as sidewalks and streets have Klein, the director of personal health at the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, scratching her head.

“When people do that, when they just throw those on the ground, they are not thinking about everyone else,” Klein said. “They’re wearing those protective measures to keep themselves safe, but then they throw them on the ground and put other people at risk.”

Although Klein does not recommend people pick up the discarded personal protection equipment, she admitted that “somebody has to.” With that comes risks of exposing oneself to any number of pathogens and communicable diseases, including COVID-19.

“It’s safe for us to assume that those masks — and the gloves, too — but especially those masks that they would pose a health risk,” Klein said. “Masks are going to have all the germs and bacteria that somebody has exhaled. If someone was to come after that and pick it up with their bare hands, they certainly could be put at risk as well.”

For those who choose to pick up those materials, Klein said wearing gloves and a mask is a must, as is thorough hand washing afterward.

Klein had a straightforward message for the litterbugs.

“Just clean up after yourself,” Klein said. “Don’t put somebody else at risk when you’ve taken the steps to protect them when you’re breathing.”

Not only does the PPE litter cause a health risk, it poses an environmental risk as well.

A study released last week from the the journal of Environmental Science and Technology found that, worldwide, people are using and throwing away an estimated 129 billion disposable masks and 65 billion disposable gloves every month. That figure has both both environmental groups and waste management companies worried.

The Associated Press reported that PPE can be mistaken as food by birds, fish, marine mammals and other animals. The gloves, masks and sanitizing wipes are all plastic, which break down into microplastics that attract pesticides and other harmful chemicals, officials with the Citizens Campaign for the Environment said.

When the wildlife eats the litter, they don’t just get the plastic, they get the chemicals as well.

Greg Reisig, co-chair of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, said people need to be more thoughtful and dispose of those materials in the correct way.

“Some people are just very selfish and just throw things down on the ground without thinking and without caring. That’s just totally irresponsible,” Reisig said. “They don’t pay attention to keeping everything clean.”

Jill Greenberg, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said properly disposing of used PPE is “a very simple thing to do.”

“You just throw them in the trash,” she said.

Not the recycling bin.

Both Greenberg and Jill Martin, director of community programs at the Recycling Partnership, emphasized that used PPE should not be recycled.

“We do see it as litter all over, but we are also seeing an increase of those masks and gloves in the recycling stream,” Martin said, adding that EGLE and TRP are working together with counties across Michigan to get that message out to the public. “It just cannot be recycled.”

Greenberg said much of the materials that go through the separating process at a recycling plant are diverted back to solid waste dumps and landfills because “it’s not clean and it’s potentially contaminating other clean products.”

Reisig was one of those under the impression that used PPE could be recycled, and he was surprised to find out that it could not be. Now knowing that, Reisig said it is even more important to get that information out to the public to avoid further incorrect disposal of the materials.

“There needs to be a lot more education about that,” he said. “So many people have been led to believe that you just throw it in the recycling bin and American Waste or someone else will take care of it. That’s concerning.”

Reisig said he plans to bring the issue up at the NMEAC board meeting Tuesday.

Martin called littering a “behavior issue” that could be difficult to solve and change.

“Years ago, it was cigarettes and people emptying their ashtrays out of their car onto the ground,” she said. “We had organizations pop up, like Keep America Beautiful, to really tackle littering. This is another one of those cases.”