Take steps to reduce pandemic litter

Increased littering of single-use items related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, including masks, gloves, and disinfecting wipes, has troubling consequences for the environment.

When trash is not properly disposed of, it makes its way into watersheds, where it travels by water flow from rivers and streams into the ocean.

Eric Sparks, assistant professor with the Mississippi State University Extension Service and director of the Coastal Marine Extension Program, said the rise in the use of protective items is natural because of health concerns.

“The increase in personal protective equipment and other items, like takeout containers and bottled water, is rampant as people take precautions,” Sparks said. “That makes it even more important to minimize single-use or disposable plastic items when you can and dispose of these items properly.”

Unlike many issues facing humankind these days, litter is one within each person’s control.

“What you do with trash and your use of what we term ‘disposable’ items is primarily handled through personal choices,” he said. “Invest in reusable water bottles and grocery bags. Put your trash where it belongs, in the trash can or recycling container. And if you’re getting take-out, ask if they have an option for biodegradable containers, and choose those.”

Sparks said research shows litter is a significant factor when people choose where they want to vacation and, importantly, spend their vacation dollars.

“Surveys have shown that litter is one of the top things that keep people from visiting an area, like a beach,” he said. “On several occasions, I’ve heard of businesses that were deterred from locating to certain areas -- some in Mississippi -- because of so much litter. Why would they expect their future employees to be invested in a company if they trash their own home environment?”

Adam Rohnke, Extension wildlife biologist, said more troubling to him than the unsightly mess people leave on the ground is the litter’s impact on wildlife.

“Trash is often mistaken for food, and as the trash takes up space in an animal’s stomach, that animal feels full, so it does not eat,” Rohnke said. “Many animals starve to death because of this and blockages, from turtles that mistake plastic bags for jelly fish to dolphins that wash up on beaches with their stomachs packed with indigestible garbage.”

Animals can get their heads stuck in containers, get entangled in plastic bags or even get caught in the ear loops of disposable masks. Birds also use litter to build their nests, which can cause problems for them and their young.

“We are seeing birds incorporate various types of paper, plastic and non-natural elements into their nests, which can cause entanglement of nestlings, unlike natural leaf material, feathers and animal hair,” Rohnke said. “This can also happen with mammals in their dens or nesting sites, but it is more common with birds.”

Manmade materials may not breathe in the same way natural materials do, which can cause moisture problems. Since eggs and baby birds rely on their parents and the nest insulation to regulate temperature, there is concern manmade materials may interfere with that process.

In addition to responsibly managing trash, Sparks and Rohnke recommended participating in local clean-up and education efforts.

The “Celebrate the Pearl” challenge runs through the month of September with a variety of activities designed to reduce litter in the environment and increase participation in outdoor activities. Find information about the Pearl Riverkeeper organization and this challenge at www.pearlriverkeeper.com.

The Mississippi Coastal Cleanup program, organized by the MSU Extension Service, has been adapted for the pandemic. Participants can register online and borrow clean-up kits to conduct their own family-based or individual clean-up activities. Each kit will contain instructions for documenting the litter picked up to maintain the ongoing citizen science project identifying the most commonly littered items on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. To learn more, visit http://coastalcleanup.extension.msstate.edu.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.

Keri Collins Lewis | MSU Extension Service

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