Sept. 4, 2020 | By Claire Barber | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian

The other day, I saw one of those fancy liquid gel pens lying abandoned on the fringe of a dry, Colorado Springs lawn – a Uniball .7 mm to be exact. Now, I am not usually one to buy fancy pens. I am a pen pilferer: master of finding MUJI fine points in the dejected corners of the fourth floor of the library … when it was still a thing to go into the library, of course.

But alas, my affinity for never paying for fancy pens was met with a harsh reality this week as I lingered at the edge of someone’s yard: what’s the risk of COVID-19 if I pick up this prized piece of litter?

In the end I picked it up, and have now happily taken meager notes during Zoom class with the flowing blue ink.

It probably wasn’t my smartest decision, and although COVID-19 mainly spreads through close contact person-to-person, there is still risk posed by the virus spreading from surfaces.

So maybe don’t pick up random things off the street.

In all seriousness, trash has become a tricky thing during these pandemic days. The number of times I have seen a baby blue mask wedged into the silt on the sidewalk has made the sight normal.

A study published in June found that the “mismanagement of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a monthly estimated use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves globally, is resulting in widespread environmental contamination.”

That same study found that medical waste poses a health risk, since COVID-19 can survive up to three days on plastics. So yes, I probably should not have picked up that pen.

Aside from worries about COVID-19 spread, another study found that surgical face masks also present a potential risk for micro-plastic pollution when their polymeric materials break apart into particles, often into pieces that are less than five millimeters in size. According to the same study, face masks “are easily ingested by higher organisms, such as fishes, and microorganisms in the aquatic life which will affect the food chain and finally chronic health problems to humans.”

Plastic industry lobbyists additionally have pushed for plastic disposables, influencing policy decisions. In Maine, a single-use plastics (SUP) ban was delayed to Jan. 15, 2021. While the importance of single-use materials during a global pandemic should not be diminished, it also should not be ignored that lobbyists have jumped into the pool of influence.

On top of increased SUP use and the heightened need for PPE, our waste streams have been disrupted. As one study found, “The end-of-life waste management for many SUP during COVID-19 is likely as mixed municipal solid waste, as recycling streams are being restricted worldwide.”

But from what we can control, reusable masks do make a difference (and please for the love of god wear a mask) – a Life Cycle Assessment on mask adoption scenarios found that single use masks aggravate climate change 10 times more than reusable masks.

So, yes, while we continue social distancing and COVID-19 continues to take lives, an ecological crisis is also underway.

One more for the books, 2020.

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