Discarded masks and gloves are everywhere. Is littering cool again?

A discarded mask litters a local waterway. Janaury 28, 2021. (photo: txmx 2)

Well into year three of the COVID-19 pandemic national emergency, things seem as bad as ever.

Even considering the advent of vaccines, better information about COVID-19 treatment, transmission and who is at most risk of hospitalization and death, uncertainty, fear and anxiety persist with a vengeance.

The pandemic also created or worsened other problems.

“When the tide goes out,” as the famous investor Warren Buffet once opined, “you learn who’s been swimming naked.”

Covid, like the pandemics, natural disasters and wars before it, sharply exposed some of the long-simmering injustices and inequities underpinning our society. Gaps in the public education system; the school to prison pipeline; lack of adequate mental health care and drug addiction counseling; unequal outcomes for minority groups and the economically disadvantaged; over-dependence on a 10,000 mile petroleum fueled supply chain coupled with an erosion of American domestic manufacturing capacity: Covid didn’t cause these problems, it just made them harder to ignore.

There is a worsening supply-chain crisis, wherein U.S. big box retailers are currently placing their product orders…for Christmas 2022- because that’s how long they expect things to take.

Inflation is driving prices up on everything Americans buy, including the big three: Food, fuel and housing. Covid revealed just how many Americans were living paycheck to paycheck; and that was before the pandemic took a majority share bite out of the last two years and counting.

Widespread public school closures remain a reality, though most schools are open to at least some in-person learning. A new variant has emerged, potentially more transmissible but possibly less severe: All told, COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be done with us yet, no matter how done some of us would like to be with it.

As some media outlets have maintained, “it’s over when we say it’s over.” Which is to say that it may never be over.

More and more people are accepting that COVID-19 will have to become a kind of new normal. Though how any of us are going to be able to survive another two years of shut-downs, quarantines, mask mandates, distancing requirements and zoom meetings, is hard to say.

Will it ever be safe to go outside, unmasked and unafraid, again?


It never was, really. Before COVID-19 there was Swine Flu and Avian Fever and SARS. After COVID-19, and Delta, and Omricron, and whatever the next variant will be, there will be another deadly disease or virus threatening humanity. Scientists don’t have a crystal ball, but they haven’t exactly ruled out new pandemics in our future.

Life will probably never return to pre-Covid normal- for everyone. Those who live in areas with strict masking and COVID-19 mitigation mandates will still have to follow those guidelines, however much those who feel mitigation measures have gone on long enough might chafe.

Some who live in areas without masking mandates and other mitigation measures may feel there should be more, and though they are free to mask themselves as they like, might chafe at others not being required to do the same.

It’s quite a conundrum.

A wise person once said, “anything that can’t go on forever has to end sometime,” and it’s true.

COVID-19 mitigation measures will have to end sometime- won’t they?- but as to when everyone might reach a consensus on that, no one should be holding their breath.

Zero-Covid seems like a bit of a moonshot, even for a medical and scientific apparatus which just produced effective vaccines against coronaviruses, where none existed before, in record time. Nevertheless, Covid zero seems to be the strategy in some places and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

If ever.

Diseases and viruses are humanity’s only natural predator, besides ourselves, of course. Polar bears and mountain lions are the only other animals known to intentionally hunt human beings as prey, and they aren’t very effective at it.

Every other animal species with which we share this planet has natural predators aplenty; human beings if no other. Not us though; we’re at the top.

Except for viruses and diseases.

That we have to live in a world where a virus could emerge from a wet market or leak from a laboratory at any time goes without saying. Not even COVID-19 was a complete surprise: Scientists had been warning about a novel coronavirus emerging for many years prior to 2020.

While nations, governments and political parties may not agree on how we should handle the third year of this pandemic, and a public consensus seems quite out of reach, surely there are a few things we can agree to do better, going forward.

We aren’t out of the woods yet. A Supreme Court Justice recently asked one of our preeminent public health authorities if we might still be mitigating COVID-19 as we have been these past two years for the next two.

The answer was yes.

Given the ongoing nature of the pandemic, the problem of medical waste requires addressing sooner rather than later.

Even considering the many challenges of the pandemic, the environment is still under threat. The viability of carbon offset credits aside, no level of climate alarmism is required to admit our post-Industrial revolution era has been hard on Mother Earth.

Deforestation is still a huge problem, along with loss of animal habitat worldwide. Marine biologists and oceanographers have been sounding the alarm for years about sea life dwindling dangerously in the world’s oceans. Single use plastics remain a blight on humanity, and not one we have ever faced before in history.

The problem of our garbage- the vast amounts of plastic, glass, cardboard, cans, and paper products we produce- is too mountainous to bear thinking about. The emerging nations we used to pay to pollute their own countries with our excess garbage because they were too poor to say no, have stopped accepting our trash. China is tired of American plastic in its waterways and so is Malaysia.

Nowhere is our waste and garbage problem more noticeable lately than COVID trash everywhere. The WHO has warned that 87,000 tons of PPE medical waste was produced from March 2020 to November 2021 and has strongly urged consumers to be more conscious.

Littering, which was on the run pre-Covid, is back with a vengeance. Used and discarded disposable masks, rubber gloves and other pieces of PPE equipment are everywhere we look.

No one needs to be told this: A walk in any neighborhood, through any parking lot, along any roadside or watercourse will reveal the terrible truth. Masks and gloves are choking waterways, blocking sewers.

In our haste to deal with COVID-19, we forgot ourselves. People who would have never considered littering before in their lives- who would have previously done more than look askance at anyone presuming to throw trash out of the car window- are filling the parking lots of Whole Foods and Trader Joes with enough discarded medical trash to replace cigarette butts as the most common type of litter.

It isn’t as if progress hasn’t been made in recycling and finding long-term solutions to our growing trash problem: They have.

In most places, cardboard and aluminum have reached the free market sweet spot. It is now cheaper to produce those two materials by recycling than it is to produce them from scratch.

Astute students of economics will note paying for itself is a testament to the longevity of a solution.

The same cannot be said for plastic and glass, both of which are still more expensive to produce via recycling than to make from scratch.

More innovation is necessary, as is willing cooperation from a public ready to be responsible for disposing of trash properly again. We were moving in a positive direction; recycling becoming more widespread, a growing awareness of the unsustainable amount of garbage we produce.

Not COVID-19, or anything else, reduces the urgency of saving the environment from the predations of conspicuous consumerism and global corporate exploitation.

“How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet,” wrote Lisa Parker for the National Geographic in April of 2021. “Personal protective equipment is made of plastic and isn’t recyclable. Now it’s being found everywhere on earth, including the oceans. The solution isn’t complicated: Throw them away.”

The very least we can do, come what new variant may, is pick up our trash.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)