Monday, December 11, 2023

COVID-19 clutter: Trash and litter is up and cleaning efforts are down

Disposable face masks and other personal protective equipment are the newest finds among roadside litter. (WYDaily/Courtesy of MaxPixels)

YORK COUNTY — It’s a common sight these days: a face mask left abandoned in the parking lot. Or maybe you’ve seen a random latex glove that someone left behind on a park bench.

Does it seem like you’ve been taking out the trash more than you should? 

That’s because litter and trash production has increased since the start of the pandemic, and there are a few reasons why this is happening. 

The first reason is pretty obvious.

The pandemic has brought on an increased use of person protective equipment (PPE), all of which has to be disposable for safety reasons. Using reusable cloth masks has helped curve the issue of disposable masks ending up where they shouldn’t, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that people are still using Lysol wipes and mini bottles of hand sanitizer. 

AskHRGreen, the local public initiative whose purpose is to educate the community on greener practices, has noticed this increase in waste production.

Katie Cullipher, principal environmental education planner for AskHRGreen, said that other communities along the Peninsula have reported record litter tonnage pickups. At the same time, many clean up efforts have been short staffed because of the pandemic. 

“We work with 17 localities in the Hampton Roads region, and they’ve all reported for the last year an uptick in roadside litter,” Cullipher said. “And the increase in PPE supplies is definitely part of the litter being collected.”

Samantha McNeil, outreach coordinator for the Department of Public Works in York County, said another reason for trash and litter increases is that people are eating out more. 

“With roadside trash, we’ve seen an increase in plastic bags and Styrofoam takeout containers,” she said. 

But roadside litter is just the tip of the iceberg. 

“In household trash, the increase started almost immediately with the stay-at-home order,” McNeil said. “People were spending more time at home, so household trash naturally increased. But people were also spending more time cleaning out their homes.”

There has been a 10% increase in trash collected from the 2019-2020 to the 2020-2021 fiscal years, according to data collected by York County’s Waste Management. 

Laurie Halperin, waste services manager for York County, said that the department hasn’t had to change too much in response to the trash collection increase, except for one key thing: 

“We are paying more for disposal,” Halperin said. “The budget wasn’t too greatly affected but the increase is there.”

So what’s the big issue here? Waste management is working to clean up the extra trash, so why should residents worry?

Well, this is more than just a sanitation problem.

“When we talk about trash and roadside litter, it’s not just an aesthetic issue,” McNeil said, emplacing how increased litter is dangerous for water-side communities like the Hampton Roads area.

“Part of what our department does is working to keep local waterways clear. Littering can cause flooding and mosquito problems,” she added. “All we ask is that our residents be mindful of that.”

But is there more than just mindfulness that residents can do to curb the spread of litter?

Cullipher said there are multiple ways people can help out, such as volunteering for clean up events or educating oneself on reducing household waste. She referenced the AskHRGreen event calendar and said that people can visit their website to look for clean up events. To see the event calendar, click here. 

“We all have a very active role to play when it comes to the health of our environment and what we put into it,” Cullipher said. “Even just a few hours of volunteering makes a big difference.”


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