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Organizations worldwide collecting data on PPE pollution

Posted at 2:37 PM, Sep 11, 2020

In cities across America, volunteers stand armed and ready to fight a different kind of virus infecting the planet.

"Everything's changed right now. Everything is to-go, so it's turned into a disposable society again," said Miah Earn.

Earn lives in Hillcrest, an urban neighborhood in San Diego, California. She's out on the streets cleaning up liter, protecting the city she's called home for over 30 years.

"It's a mess out here. It really is," said Earn. "I'm seeing masks and gloves everywhere. I don't understand why people can't hit the garbage with them."

Ian Monahan is with I Love a Clean San Diego and says they've seen more trash in general during the pandemic.

"Increased packaging, whether it's to-go containers, whether it's PPE, whether it's shipping products. Unfortunately, it's ending up on the streets, and we've got to protect it, so it doesn't get into the ocean or waterways at the end of the day," said Monahan.

During a global clean-up event this month, Monahan says for the first time they'll be tracking the amount of PPE collected.

"It's actually a whole new anomaly in our clean-ups. We really didn't see them before. And mostly it's the disposable masks, which people think are paper, they're actually plastic," said Monahan.

Eventually, they will break down into microscopic pieces that will outlive us hundreds of years, and they can threaten wildlife and food supplies.

Around the world, it's estimated nearly 200 billion disposable face coverings and gloves are being used each month because of the pandemic.

The environmental conservation organization OceansAsia is documenting this new pandemic of pollution, capturing video of disposable face masks washing up on one of Hong Kong's most remote islands.

"Once you see this, you can't really unsee it," said Mitch Silverstein, chapter manager for Surfrider Foundation San Diego County.

The nonprofit is piloting a program to make clean-ups more convenient, loaning the tools to businesses for the public to borrow. Volunteers have the option to fill out a data sheet with what they collected, which now includes PPE.

Data collected around the world could help inform policy for products doing the most damage.

"Use reusable items, a reusable mask, reusable gloves when you're cleaning up," said Monahan.

They say it will take a global shift in thinking to heal mother earth from what some call this human-made sickness.