'We can do better': Fairfield cleanup aims to show environmental dangers of discarded PPE

FAIRFIELD — Surgical masks, wipes and plastic gloves have become a common sight throughout parking lots and along roads.

“I’ve seen it this way for months now and I know we can do better,” said Alexis Harrison, of Fairfielders Protecting Land and Neighborhoods (FairPLAN). “While we have to be very conscious of health implications during the pandemic, we can’t be distracted and litter. COVID-19 will eventually go away. Plastic waste, it’s here forever.”

About 20 volunteers from FairPLAN and the Mill River Wetland Committee gathered on Saturday to clean up the discarded items and raise awareness about the dangers they pose to the environment. Volunteers from Sustainable Fairfield Students and Sustainable Youth Connecticut groups also helped out. The group collected about 960 pieces of litter, though Harrison said the littering is not a problem unique to Fairfield.

The PPE debris can have implications on the watershed. There’s also the added risk of animals mistaking the litter for jellyfish and ingesting them, Harrison said. She recommends people cut the straps off the surgical masks to prevent animals from being entangled.

Plastic pollution is not a new problem, though it is amplified by the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is estimated to have resulted in a global usage of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves, most of which are not recyclable, every month,” Harrison said.

This builds on the waste the U.S. was already creating.

A recent study in Science Advances showed the U.S. produced 17 percent of the global plastic waste in 2016, though it only account for 4 percent of the world’s population, said Carrie Rullo, with the Mill River Wetland Committee.

“During this COVID crisis, we reverted back to single-use plastic bags for a few months, and continue to see large volumes of restaurant food and beverages being taken away in disposable plastic packaging,” Rullo said. “We hope this clean-up raises awareness of the significant and ongoing problem of plastic pollution in general by shining a light on this new form of litter.”

She said plastics are especially problematic because they are lightweight, making it easy for the wind or water to move them over large areas. They also continually break down into smaller pieces where they enter the water supply and are eaten by animals.

“As these smaller organisms are eaten by larger animals, including humans, the microplastics are concentrated as they move up the food chain,” Rullo said. “These tiny plastic fragments contain chemical compounds not intended for human ingestion, and the long-term health effects are not well understood.”

Saturday’s inaugural cleanup was kept small so the volunteers could social distance and follow other COVID protocols. Both Harrison and Rullo said they hope to have more events.

While the event itself was restricted, they said they hope it will prompt more people to be conscious about how they treat PPE.

Fighting the pandemic should not come at the cost of increasing the flow of plastic pollution into the environment,” Harrison said. “It’s our hope we educate our community on the implications of single-use PPE and to mitigate the harmful impacts of plastic pollution.”

They encouraged people to wear reusable cloth masks instead of disposable ones and not litter.

“We all should reduce our reliance on single use products in general, choosing reusable items whenever possible,” Rullo said. “Cloth masks and gloves are appropriate for most household uses as long as they are washed regularly. Let's save the single use PPE for medical settings.”