PPE pollution becomes new wave of waste during coronavirus pandemic
Disposable, single-use masks, gloves and sanitary wipes have helped curb the spread of COVID-19, but as CBS12 News has learned the coronavirus crisis is creating a new wave of waste

Disposable single-use masks, gloves and sanitary wipes have helped curb the spread of COVID-19, but as CBS12 News has learned, the coronavirus crisis is creating a new wave of waste and the problem is so severe that city leaders on the Treasure Coast and water advocates across South Florida are sounding the alarm.

"It’s horrible," environmentalist Maria Algarra said. "PPE is just not only the new normal, it’s also the new crisis."

Algarra, the founder of Miami Clean Beach, said the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19 is creating a serious new problem we cannot afford to ignore.

"We have collected, ourselves, at least 4,000 masks as well as gloves," she said. "It’s very heartbreaking. It’s frustrating."

Personal protective equipment (PPE) can protect us from the virus but it also poses a danger to the environment and wildlife in particular.

Heartbreaking video and photos show the rising threat: a bird is seen tangled in trash; a penguin is dead after swallowing a mask; a used-glove is photographed floating along the shore as a plastic trap waiting to happen; and a puffer fish was found that had choked to death by a mask.

"That one [puffer fish] broke my heart completely because I found it. And I didn’t know what to do," Algarra said. 

Algarra, who joins other volunteers cleaning up the coastline every week, calls it a “plastic pandemic” and it’s not unique to the United States. In Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment estimates that hospitals produced more than 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the outbreak compared to 40 tons a day before coronavirus.

"So since the beginning of the pandemic, we started seeing a lot of gloves," she said.

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Port St. Lucie Public Works employees are on cleanup duty five days a week. They tell us gloves, masks and wipes are winding up in sewer systems and by the side of the road.

"Volunteers did say they found some in the drainage systems the swell-lines you see here," said Georgette Beck, Supervisor of Keep Port St Lucie Beautiful. "It's bad. We were getting calls from residents and calls into the mayor's office, city council and our office that they're seeing masks everywhere."

Beack said single-use PPE can take decades to decompose.

Animals often mistake the decomposing PPE for food. Researchers say ingesting it can lead to a slow and painful death.

"As we know the animals, they don't know what it is so the birds are picking up these strings," Beack said. "They're getting tangled in it."

“I knew that there will be a point when we were going to find them on the waterways because anything on the streets always finds its way into the ocean," Algarra said. "We have already been struggling with plastic pollution for the longest and now we are struggling with PPE pollution."

Algarra started a “Glove challenge," which asked people on social media to pick up one glove or mask off the ground. 

It went viral. 

So far, people accepting the challenge have picked up more than 18,000 pieces of PPE around the world.

"Every little bit of an effort we do to clean up our waterways are to take one piece of trash from the street or our environment makes a huge difference," Algarra said. 

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