Medical Waste Litter Poses Environmental Threat: Residents of Milwaukee Must Think Before Throwing PPE on the Ground

By Quinn Clark 

Every day, Daisy Linette takes her dog out for a walk through her neighborhood on the North Side of Milwaukee. Since March, and the increase in severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s started to see her neighborhood become covered in medical waste.

“I see littered latex gloves and face masks almost daily while walking my dog through my neighborhood on the North Side,” Linette said. “It’s tragic.”

Watching her neighborhood become covered in discarded gloves and masks more and more each day has felt disheartening. 

“Adding to the global climate change issue by not properly disposing of the items we need to keep us safe is just adding to the list of things that are wrong with our planet,” Linette said. 

Daisy Linette witnesses masks and gloves laying on the ground of her neighborhood on the North Side of Milwaukee.  Photo provided by Linette.

To protect others and oneself from COVID-19, people are turning to wearing masks and latex gloves when going about their days. However, with an increase in personal protection equipment use comes an increase in litter, and Milwaukee’s environment will face the consequences. It is time for residents of Milwaukee to think before throwing their PPE on the ground. 

Polluting Waterways 

Zoe Jump, education coordinator of Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that promotes clean communities in Milwaukee, warns that masks and gloves on the ground will easily end up in waterways. 

“These items are not recyclable or biodegradable and are very lightweight, which means they can easily be swept into storm drains that end up in our waterways,” Jump said. 

According to Anne Michalski, the communications manager of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, an advocacy organization working for swimmable, fishable rivers throughout Milwaukee, it’s hard to tell the source of nuisance pollution. During spring, there is always an uptick in water pollution.

However, Milwaukee Riverkeeper has witnessed PPE littered around Milwaukee. 

In Riverwest, Amanda Leslie, resident of the neighborhood, has seen gloves strewn around. When she walked outside to her car, a glove lied right in front of her home. Photo provided by Leslie.

“We’ve seen gloves and other PPE on streets, sidewalks and even near the lakefront,” Michalski said. “Although we haven’t observed any in our waterways, it’s very likely that any debris (PPE included) in streets will end up in storm drains and eventually our waterways.”

While PPE lays on the streets of Milwaukee, COVID-19 has halted Milwaukee Riverkeepers’ usual plans to clean up thousands of pounds of trash. 

“Unfortunately, COVID has delayed our plans to host our 25th Annual Milwaukee Riverkeeper Spring Cleanup, which we host annually at this time of year to help restore our rivers,” Michalski said. “In one day, we usually clean up nearly 100,000 pounds of trash.”

The Danger to People and Animals

Medical masks and latex gloves are used to protect the lives of humans, but when they are  thrown on the ground, they have the potential to kill animals. 

 “The items can be mistaken for food by animals, which is fatal,” Jump said. 

Photo by Christian Hernandez on Unsplash

Children are also at risk from PPE litter. As children play outside, they may be drawn to pick up the waste. 

“Many of the gloves are brightly colored in blue or yellow which could be potentially harmful for children who may be tempted to pick up the littered items,” Jump said. 

While people are attempting to protect others with masks and gloves, the medical waste on the ground can potentially be contaminated with COVID-19. 

Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful works to clean up all types of litter found throughout Milwaukee neighborhoods. Picking up improperly discarded PPE can put them, along with others who want to help and pick up litter, in danger. 

Jump reminds people that even in these unique circumstances, there is no excuse to litter. 

“Many people are practicing safety precautions by utilizing masks and gloves while shopping or walking outdoors,”  Jump said. “This precaution is keeping people safe but it is not an excuse to litter.” 

How to Properly Discard Masks and Gloves 

It can be worrisome for people to bring back masks and gloves that could be potentially contaminated with COVID-19 to their homes. However, there are ways to properly discard them without throwing them on the ground. 

“The safest way to dispose of used gloves and masks is in a lined garbage bin that can be tied and disposed of properly,” Jump said. “ If you cannot find an outdoor garbage bin while out and about, bag the items in your car and bring them home to be disposed of.” 

Michalski feels that it is important to remind people not to litter their medical waste, because it will only worsen its impact. Even when it is discarded properly, there is still a danger to this increase in medical waste. 

“As a result of COVID there is more medical waste now, and in Milwaukee that means physical impacts to our waterways as landfills are expanded moving/destroying some tributaries along the way,” Michalski said. 

Michalski asks that people help Milwaukee Riverkeepers on their mission by making cleaning up a part of their daily routine. Anyone can host their own “DIY Spring Cleanup” at http://www.milwaukeeriverkeeper.org/mrk-cleanup-pledge/

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