Keith Matheny | Detroit Free Press | March 27, 2020
The spreading coronavirus pandemic is leading to an outbreak of another kind: pollution. Protective gloves, masks and disinfecting wipes are frequently showing up on the ground instead of in trash bins. It’s not only unsightly, it potentially poses problems for the environment, for wastewater treatment plants — and, at least remotely, provides a possible pathway to infecting others with the COVID-19 virus.
It seems to particularly be a problem outside of supermarkets and big-box retail stores, where patrons shop wearing gloves, then discard them in the parking lot, on the pavement. Muskegon resident Sham Six described the problem in a Facebook post:
“I am just stupefied by the stupidity and absolute disrespect people have for others,” she wrote. “I went to Walmart to pick up prescriptions for my mom and could not believe all the gloves, masks and wipes thrown all over the parking lot. It’s so sad and just pisses me off. People please! How are we suppose to stop the spread of anything when you throw contaminates all over for others to clean up? “It’s not an isolated occurrence. The Free Press checked the parking lots of four local stores. Here’s what it found:
- At the Kroger supermarket on Union Lake Road in Commerce Township, 20 protective gloves of various types and colors were found strewn on the parking lot pavement.
- At the Walmart Supercenter on North Pontiac Trail Road in Commerce Township, 12 gloves were found strewn throughout the parking lot.
- At the Meijer store on Haggerty Road in Commerce Township, seven gloves were in the parking lot.
- At the Target store on Haggerty Road in Walled Lake, 12 gloves were strewn about the parking lot.
The most common kinds of protective gloves, made of nitrile, a synthetic rubber, latex, vinyl or other similar materials will last in the environment for years, decades, even centuries, said Nathan Murphy, state director of Environment Michigan, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Ann Arbor. “In the meantime, they’re out there harming wildlife, like we know plastics pollution already does,” he said. One of the protective gloves the Free Press found, outside the Kroger supermarket in Commerce Township, was on top of a storm sewer grate, ready to fall through the cracks at the slightest movement.
Throughout most of southeast Michigan, those storm drains lead, unfiltered, to water bodies such as the Clinton or Rouge rivers, ultimately reaching Lake St. Clair and the Great Lakes in many cases, Murphy said.
“There’s a reliance on proper disposal to keep them out of the environment,” he said. “Anyone who’s seen the plastics litter along our beaches knows too much of this stuff is ending up in the environment. Now you’re seeing that with these gloves in those parking lots. It’s a real disappointment because most of those box stores have trash cans right by the doors.”
And the gloves probably are unhelpful when it comes to COVID-19, said Dr. Daniel Havlichek, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Michigan State University. “The gloves aren’t going to provide any substantial protection — hand-washing (after shopping) would be much better,” he said.
Havlichek said it’s “theoretically possible” that the carelessly discarded gloves pose a COVID-19 exposure threat to whomever picks them up. But an exposure is far more likely from a hard surface or the respiratory secretions from someone coughing or sneezing nearby.
“As a doctor, you never say never,” he said.
Disinfectant wipes are a great way to clean hard surfaces and kill the virus. But such wipes aren’t made for flushing — even those labeled flushable aren’t particularly biodegradable.
The City of East Jordan, in a March 19 Facebook post, illustrated the problem with a matted glob of wipes pulled from the city’s sewer system.
“Our sewer department is seeing an increase in wipes plugging the collection system pumps and pipes,” city officials stated. “Each time a pump gets plugged, an operator has to open it up and manually remove them, exposing themselves to the very same germs you were trying to avoid.”
The solution to all of this pollution isn’t complicated: Proper disposal in a trash can.
“Would you blow your nose and throw your Kleenex on the ground?” Havlichek said. “That’s not good. That’s rude, and not the way we behave in a civilized society.”