Phyliss Macuga Baker stands in a field next to a shopping center in Canton holding a trash bag and scanning the area. There are drink bottles, cigarettes, plastic bags and plenty of personal protective equipment lying in the grass.
“People that are very conscious of COVID-19 and they want to take care of their sanitary needs drop all of their wipey-dipes and their masks in here. And so I’ve probably picked up 25 masks already, probably two or three rolls of wipey-dipes,” says Macuga Baker, who calls sanitary wipes “wipey-dipes.” “And it’s very sad. I’ve lived in the community for 28 years and I’ve never seen it like this.”
Listen: Hear more about trash cleanups in Canton during the pandemic.
Macuga Baker first started noticing the discarded personal protective equipment on a recent trip to Florida.
“We were walking up and down the beach at Panama Beach, and the masks, the sanitary items, the hand sanitizers, the bottles were just up and down the beach floating back into the water.”
When she returned to Michigan, Macuga Baker noticed the trash didn’t go away. She stepped out of her car in the Kroger parking lot adjacent to this field, saw a bunch of litter and told her husband she was going to do something about it. The retired teacher posted on a Canton Facebook group inviting others to help her clean up the vacant lot.
“And this definitely needs it. It’s a mess here,” says Carol Miner, one of two residents who read the post and decided to show up. Macuga Baker’s husband and friend also attended.
Miner gets on her hands and knees, picking up trash near a swampy area of the field.
“I understand that it’s a privately owned property, but it it’s my township. I live here, So, I feel it’s all of our duty to contribute, not just one person,” explains Miner.
Kate Gregorowicz is the store manager at Once Upon A Child, a chain resale store not far from where Macuga Baker and Miner are picking up trash. She says she’s noticed PPE in her store’s parking lot, too.
“Just a lot of gloves and disposable masks,” says Gregorowicz. But she says, she’s been hesitant to clean it up. “Normally, before COVID I’d reach over and pick up whatever I see on my way into work, or getting off work. But when it’s PPE, you’re more reluctant to touch it because it’s a mask or gloves.” She’s worried picking up those items could increase her risk for contracting the coronavirus.
But with proper precautions, it is possible to stay safe while cleaning up trash during the pandemic, says Helen Lowman, president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful. The group is hosting its Great American Cleanup with affiliates across the country.
“We have these things called litter pickers, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them, but it’s kind of a long stick,” explains Lowman. She says her organization also recommends people participating in cleanups wear masks and stay socially distant.
Keep America Beautiful recently released a report on the state of litter in the United States. The research estimates that at any given time during late 2020 there were more than 200 million pieces of plastic gloves and masks littered along U.S. roadways and waterways. That may sound like a lot, but masks and gloves were a very small portion of the trash identified by the study. Together they represented less than 1% of all littered items in the U.S. Still, Lowman says, that does not mean we can just ignore the discarded PPE on the ground.
“I see it, everyone sees it,” says Lowman. “It’s a real problem. And it is absolutely a result of the situation we’re all in trying to keep safe in the pandemic. But these items go in the trash, they don’t go on the ground.”
The way to prevent COVID-related trash, Lowman says, is the same way to prevent other litter — with educational campaigns and by encouraging people to choose reusable items. With PPE, that means selecting washable masks and gloves, and cloths instead of disposable wipes.
As for the PPE that’s already on the ground, Macuga Baker is hoping her cleanup, though sparsely attended, will inspire others.
“I just wish that more people would realize that without one person making a difference, no one will ever make a difference,” says says. “I know I’m just one person, my husband’s one person, but we are cleaning up a lot of the mess. Hopefully some other resident will say ‘You know what … let me do that, too. I want to do that, too.’”
Macuga Baker says they’ll feel really good if they do.