Cars zoom past Bonnie Jackson as she takes her daily social distancing walk through Sag Harbor on Long Island. After days of spotting littered blue, white – even orange – rubber gloves along her route, she decided to take action.
Jackson pulled on her own fresh pair of rubber gloves and collected litter along Route 114 with her friend this week.
“We’ve got two bags full and a half a bag, and how could we resist not picking up more stuff besides gloves?” Jackson says, “Those disinfectant wipes are all over the place, dried out of course.”
People take extra precautions going out in public now. Some wear rubber gloves to the grocery store. The CDC is now considering asking everyone to wear cloth masks while outside. While many take these precautions to protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19, some do not properly dispose of their used personal protective gear. Health care providers say the litter can put others at risk.
Francina Singh is a registered nurse who leads the Healthcare Epidemiology Department at Stony Brook University Hospital. She says the littered gloves WSHU listeners reported in grocery store parking lots, or on their walks, are not considered biohazards.
“As per CDC, COVID-related waste, unless it is soiled with blood and body fluids, it is considered a regular waste,” Singh explains.
COVID-19 spreads through cough and sneeze droplets, so Singh says anything soiled with those fluids gets put in special red medical waste bags at the hospital. Then, contractors cart off those red bags for heat treatment disposal – either incineration, or steam treatment before heading to a landfill.
Still, people should take precautions if they come across a stray rubber glove and want to dispose of it properly.
“[For] something that is on the street, we do not know who touched it, we do not know whether it was a COVID person,” says Singh. “The best practice to avoid any infections to you, would be just put a barrier between you and the thing you are touching, and then sanitize your hand.”
Singh says one barrier she carries with her at all times is a packet of tissue. She reminds listeners to throw those away – and any used gloves or protective gear – in a trash can.
David Biderman leads SWANA, the largest solid waste management association in North America. He asks litter bugs to consider what they are doing as more than 100,000 collection workers nationwide are at risk.
“Those people are working harder than ever in very challenging circumstances, and we should help them out as much as we can,” Biderman says, “We should be putting all of our waste in bags, we should be putting all our bags in carts, we should not be leaving out loose material.”
Biderman’s biggest concern is worker safety. His second biggest concern is whether towns and businesses struggling with cash flow will have the funds to pay collection workers and keep trash off the streets.
“I really think that sanitation departments and solid waste companies really need to be treated as first responders in this dangerous situation,” Biderman says.
Biderman is asking regional offices of Federal Emergency Management Agency for help. That way, extra waste generated by people working from home, or by patients in hospitals, ends up in the right place.
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