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Coronavirus: Littered masks, gloves a mounting issue, says University of Guelph study

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Chances are you’ve noticed a disposable mask or some used latex gloves on the ground during a trip to the grocery store or an evening walk.

While it is a bit of an eyesore, a new study out of the University of Guelph shows discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) is a big issue and argues for better education and disposal methods.

Read more: Masks and gloves go in the garbage, not recycling, York Region cities tell residents

The study showed that PPE is accumulating, especially in grocery store parking lots and residential neighbourhoods.

Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, conducted the study with Justine Ammendolia and Jacquelyn Saturno, both U of G graduates who are now environmental scientists based in Toronto.

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“I think people are unsure what to do with PPE litter, or they worry about exposure risk if they approach litter to dispose of it,” said Jacobs. “This is a unique item that’s been introduced into our daily lives and we just don’t know how to handle it.”

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Along with posing human health concerns, discarded PPE ends up in the sewer and ultimately in rivers and lakes, threatening aquatic wildlife, the study argued.

The five-week study commenced after all three researchers noticed lots of PPE litter around their neighbourhood.

Between May and June 2020, Ammendolia and Saturno found 1,300 pieces of discarded PPE over an area equivalent to 50 football fields.

“The calculated total number was surprising,” Jacobs said. “Where it was happening was not terribly surprising.”

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The two focused on a pair of residential neighbourhoods, two grocery store parking lots, a hospital district and a walking trail.

Read more: Saskatoon recycling company urges people to put gloves and masks in the garbage

Their findings were recorded on an app to mark locations, dates and times, and types of PPE.

Ammendolia and Saturno found the most PPE waste in grocery store parking lots, followed by areas around hospitals, then residential streets and finally trails.

“We’re getting exercise, we’re picking up garbage and we’re also doing science. This is a triple win,” said Saturno.

Out of the total 1,300 items, 44 per cent of the debris consisted of disposable gloves. Face masks (mostly disposable) made up 31 per cent and disinfectant wipes accounted for 25 per cent.

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Jacobs said the number of gloves found was surprising because wearing them was not part of public health recommendations.

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“We haven’t stopped doing the sampling, so my prediction is that gloves are not going to be as big a proportion as it was at the beginning,” she said.

On average, they found up to 30 items each day. Amounts spiked in grocery store parking lots on weekends and just before holidays, including Canada Day.

In their paper, the authors recommend that people reduce the use of disposable gloves and use reusable face masks that can be cleaned and disinfected. They also call for more accessible PPE disposal methods and more public awareness through promotion and education.

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Green Party Leader and Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner said the critical need for PPE also requires a critical public awareness campaign.

“Ontarians are willing to do what’s best for our environment,” Schreiner said in a statement.

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“The government needs to implement an education campaign to inform people of the safe use of reusable PPE and the proper disposal of single-use PPE, along with increasing the accessibility of proper PPE disposal methods.”

Read more: Plastic waste from personal protective equipment — the other coronavirus ‘plague’

Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks said it recognizes that PPE has become a greater potential source of litter.

It added that it has taken steps to create awareness and education about how to properly handle and dispose of it.

Through an email, a spokesperson for the ministry pointed to education campaigns in May and October of 2020 that provided information about the safe disposal of gloves and masks.

“The ministry also shared messaging and graphics related to proper PPE disposal with stakeholders, such as municipalities, for these stakeholders to spread the word through their social media channels on the proper disposal of PPE to help curb it from becoming litter,” said spokesperson Gary Wheeler.

The messaging urges Ontarians to dispose of used masks and gloves in waste containers lined with a plastic bag.

Read more: Edmonton bolsters Capital City Clean Up after influx of tossed gloves and masks

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The study of PPE littered around Toronto is expected to continue but the researchers will also be expanding into other Canadian cities and six other countries to get an idea of how PPE is being littered on a global scale.

“For two people walking daily to find 1,300 pieces of PPE is extremely alarming. Imagine it on a global level,” said Ammendolia.

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