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Thursday, May 23, 2024
Keeping it Green: Discarded masks and gloves are new symptom of COVID

Kyra Simone is a NOTL-born nature lover with a master's degree in biology. In her spare time, she advocates for sustainable change, picks up garbage, makes recycled jewelry, and transforms furniture bound for the landfill.


Kyra Simone
Special to The Lake Report

Masks and distancing might be the new normal, but more pollution and garbage don't have to be.

New safety measures have led to increased personal protective equipment (commonly referred to as PPE) litter in commercial areas, but also in our green spaces.

Trash Talk: Since the start of the pandemic, it is common to see PPE littered around Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Running errands last week, I counted 25 bright blue COVID-19 castoffs. Most were near businesses and parking lots.

Town parks and recreation staff have observed an increase in this type of litter, though supervisor J.B. Hopkins said NOTL does not keep track of the number of discarded PPE pieces encountered.

The problem is especially noticeable at Queen's Royal Park, which has seen more visitors than in previous years. Parks staff have had to increase litter collection there, said Hopkins.

It could be that in some cases PPE items are not negligently tossed on the ground. Disposable gloves and masks are lightweight and could blow out of garbage bins by wind. But proper disposal of these items is a personal responsibility, one that we all need to take seriously.

Let’s Face It: The disposable surgical and N95 masks that many opt to wear are made from polypropylene plastic.

In the environment, this plastic lasts more than 400 years and does not fully degrade. When it breaks down into smaller pieces, these microplastics can be eaten by animals and ultimately humans.

Wildlife on land and in water can get tangled in elastic from masks, much like those six-ring can holders and cause problems. Ear loops on masks should be cut before you discard them.

Instead of surgical masks, the Public Health Agency of Canada actually recommends washable masks made from organic fibres. Handmade and fabric masks are more fitted to the face and natural fabric is more breathable for long-term wear.

Gloves are another common sight along sidewalks: typically latex, vinyl or nitrile.

Nitrile and vinyl gloves take decades or even hundreds of years to break down. Latex does eventually decay in the environment, but can entangle wildlife and release chemical additives in the meantime.

Alternatives Close at Hand: The national public health agency advises that simple handwashing offers more protection against COVID-19 than gloves.

While gloves provide a temporary barrier, they transfer virus particles just as easily as bare hands. For those who prefer the tactile reminder that surfaces may be contaminated, washable garden gloves serve the same purpose.

If you must wear disposable PPE, place these flighty items into sealed garbage bins, or take them home so they can’t blow away.

Finally, I'm sure most of us now keep sanitizer in our car, front hall and purse, much like we do with lip balm. Pocket-sized bottles do not last long and contribute to pandemic-related pollution.

A DIY sanitizer recipe includes one litre of rubbing alcohol and 50 drops of essential oil for scent. Hardware or farm supply stores may carry large alcohol volumes, so there's no need for tiny squeeze bottles!

We’ve gotten great at being considerate of each other during this difficult time. Why not be considerate of NOTL’s natural beauty, too?

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