Photo by Gia Yetikyel/North By Northwestern

While walking down Emerson St., I saw a house with a bucket outside, clearly labeled for cigarettes as an alternative to littering. But instead of cigarette butts, the bucket was filled with blue plastic gloves.

Americans are littering masks and gloves on U.S. streets at alarmingly high rates as the country attempts to stop the spread of COVID-19. The increased littering of plastic gloves and masks have become evident to pedestrians and essential workers alike. With the pandemic comes an even greater fear of touching this discarded debris, resulting in a lesser likelihood of pedestrians limiting this pollution.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended people wear masks outside of their homes. 16 states (including the District of Columbia) are even mandating it. As of May 1, residents of Illinois are required to wear masks when going to places where they cannot keep a six-foot distance from another person. According to the Los Angeles Times, warmer temperatures only exacerbate the issue. Since June, more people have felt increasingly comfortable venturing outside due to warmer temperatures, only to find that more gloves and masks littered on the road, according to eyewitnesses.

Northwestern University sophomore Sophia Scanlon is an avid runner. Before the pandemic, she would go on multiple-mile runs at least three times a week. Scanlon is currently in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her family where she continues this routine. Though, she said now she sees far more litter than before.

“I was running down the street, like the main road, in the bike lane, and that’s when I saw the mask sort of fly across the bike lane a little bit in front of me,” Scanlon said. “It landed in the road and a car just drove over it.”

On a separate occasion, Scanlon went for a walk with her mother on a popular road and reported seeing even more litter. Right next to a nearby cemetery, Scanlon saw a glove. She felt the urge to pick up the debris but resisted out of fear of contamination.

"I kept seeing it and I would want to pick them up, but I didn't have gloves on," said Scanlon.

Photo by Gia Yetikyel/North By Northwestern

Beyond Roads

It's not just roads that have been littered. Parking lots are also easy spaces for litter to gather, especially with people frequenting essential businesses, according to Amber Stoffle.

Stoffle, an employee at a Target located in Schaumburg, Illinois, has continued working throughout the pandemic. She has not been given any kind of instruction on how to handle the mass littering in the main parking lot in front of the store.

“It’s absolutely insane. Even the trash cans are overflowing with masks and disposable gloves and everything like that,” Stoffle said. “It’s getting ridiculous in the parking lot.”

The trash crowds around the dumpsters and even directly around the store entrance. Stoffle often feels obligated to pick up the trash she sees in the parking lot because she hates seeing it around.

“I’ve seen people get out of their cars and drop gloves and not pick them up,” she said.

Stoffle uses small ziplock bags she carries around in addition to the disposable gloves she wears to pick up the garbage she sees.

“Very silent about it, to be honest with you,” Stoffle said about Target’s stance on the litter. “They have not talked about any of the litter or trash outside.”

Photo by Gia Yetikyel/North By Northwestern

Dive into the Waterways

While the littering of masks and gloves has impacted local roads and parking lots, it has yet to reach Chicago waterways according to Debra Shore, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner. The MWRD skimmer boats routinely look for debris which can get blown off streets or bridges, and sewers can overflow due to rain storms.

So far, most litter from the streets has washed away into the sewers and sewage treatment plants. These plants perform extensive filtering processes to clean water for residents. Shore remarked that gloves and masks are most likely getting screened at the start of the filtering process, where this debris is then transported to dumpsters.

Friends of the Chicago River, a non-profit organization, and Alderman Brendan Reilly, who serves Chicago’s 42nd ward, have been working on littering problems for the Chicago River long before the pandemic due to aesthetic reasons.

"The city has its own skimmer boat and we have skimmer boats and debris boats, and I think that the businesses along the riverfront also contribute to garbage collection,” Shore said. “So I don't know that I think this would be a dramatically increased burden at all. We just need to stay on top of it and urge people not to litter."

Allison Fore, the public and intergovernmental affairs officer of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), has been working on ways to inform the public on keeping the Chicagoland waterways clean and safe. One method, “No Wipes Down the Pipes,” encourages the public to flush only toilet paper as opposed to other products.

In a recent press release, the MWRD detailed that there have been more disinfecting wipes that have gotten stuck in the screening process at water plants.

“Wipes are helpful at a time we need to clean, but these are not flushable or biodegradable,” said MWRD President Kari K. Steele in the press release.

Photo by Gia Yetikyel/North By Northwestern

Life of Plastic

As plastic doesn't degrade over time, litter has long-lasting impacts on the environment.

Different types of plastic take a varying number of years to degrade. A plastic bag can take 20 years to break down, while plastic toothbrushes take up to 500 years to decompose according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Latex gloves and nitrile gloves, a tougher alternative to latex, are non-recyclable due to chemicals infused within these materials. As a result, it takes decades for them to decompose.

Surgical masks are especially harmful to the environment because they are single-use. They are made with polypropylene, which is very hard to break down in the environment. If ingested by an animal, a surgical mask could potentially harm the digestive system and kill the animal.

Sanitation workers have played a vital role in quelling this drastic increase in litter and minimizing this environmentally harmful cycle. According to an article by CNBC, sanitation workers have had to double, and sometimes triple, their usual trips to collect garbage in certain residential areas in the county.

The CDC recommends that waste collectors and recyclers continue wearing the usual protective gear like, gloves, eye protection and coveralls. It also suggests routinely disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces like steering wheels and control panels at the start and end of each shift and after anyone uses the vehicle or work area.

Photo by Gia Yetikyel/North By Northwestern

How to Handle the Litter

Laurie Ouding, a nurse of 34 years and currently works in pediatrics at Rush University Medical Center, recommends that if you want to help clean masks and gloves off of streets, you could try using a trash picker or using a gloved hand to pick up trash and immediately wash your hands after. She noticed the misuse of gloves and how this results in spreading even more germs, rather than helping the situation.

"They're contaminating more objects with the gloves on than they probably would be if they just had bare hands,” Ouding said.

Although wearing masks have become a requirement when going out in Illinois, plastic gloves have not. The CDC recommends the use of gloves when cleaning or caring for someone who is ill, but doesn’t find them necessary for running errands.

“It gives people kind of a false sense of security; wearing gloves. They think they can just wear gloves and go to the grocery store and handle everything and then get in their car and touch the steering wheel and then come home," Ouding said.

Photo by Gia Yetikyel/North By Northwestern