While health care workers are struggling to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE), some of us are littering it at our local supermarkets’ parking lots. This contradicts the purpose of current sanitary precautions by exposing other people to the used gloves or masks—and potentially the coronavirus. When used properly, gloves and masks are advantageous for protecting both ourselves and others. That also includes properly disposing of them. People may be littering their PPE because they genuinely do not know how to dispose of them, or because they are just being inconsiderate.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of confusion around how to dispose of PPE, especially gloves. Can they be recycled? Can we compost them? Or do they belong in the trash? The answers to those questions go beyond “yes” and “no.”
Nitrile and vinyl gloves are synthetic and cannot be recycled or composted. They should be disposed of in the trash. Even though latex gloves are considered biodegradable and “environmentally safe,” they are also disposed of in the trash after use. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, wearing gloves should not substitute for hand-washing. It is still important to wash your hands and disinfect frequently used surfaces regularly. Like gloves, masks also belong in the landfill after usage. The World Health Organization recommends people wash their hands for twenty seconds after they dispose of their masks.
For people who want a more sustainable approach to disposing their PPE, Kimberly-Clark Recycling Program will collect your PPE to recycle the raw material into eco-friendly products. However, this service is only for medical facilities. Terracycle offers a glove recycling program for individuals who invest in their collection box, ranging from $136 for the small box, to $257 for the medium box, and $420 for the large box. The boxes filled with used gloves are shipped for free to Terracycle, where they undergo a separation process and are then molded into recycled plastic products. To continue the service, the boxes must be reordered. So yes, we can recycle our gloves, but additional investment and labor follow. Regardless of whether or not you are an avid environmentalist, the supermarket parking lot should not be where you dispose of your PPE.
During the time when this article is being written, there are 66 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Milpitas. To prevent the number of cases from increasing, all Milpitas residents must take action, starting with themselves. Before you leave your PPE on the shopping cart or in the parking lot, remember that the essential employees who are working at the supermarket are already constantly exposed. They have to put themselves at unnecessary risks by having to clean up after you. These employees may have underlying conditions, they may be elderly, and/or they may live with someone who falls under either or both of these categories.
The bottom line is, most of us do not have the luxury of purchasing a cardboard box to recycle our PPE, so do the next best thing and throw your PPE in the trash.
By Hope Nguyen