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Littering of PPE is on the rise – but these local Manchester communities are fighting back


Whilst lockdown had many heartbreaks and frustrations, one good thing to come out of quarantine was the cleanest streets Manchester’s seen in years.

Keen to keep it going, local communities have been busy setting up their own litter picking groups and organising weekly socially distanced events to keep their neighbourhoods clean and green.

Alongside the usual discarded food cartons, nos canisters and empty bottles of the before times, they’ve also been finding a new type of litter to deal with: single-use plastic PPE.

Since we’ve all started donning masks and gloves in an effort to protect the NHS and each other from the spread of Covid-19, it seems that some people have taken to throwing their used masks and gloves on the floor instead of in the bin.

Not only is this bad for the environment, but it’s also unsanitary and heightens the risk of spreading disease – which some might argue rather undermines the point of wearing PPE in the first place.

One local group making a difference in the city is the newly created Castlefield Litter Pickers, set up by local resident Gary Rumens about six weeks ago.

Working with the council to acquire litter pickers and Biffa bags, they are taking great care to ensure they are litter picking safely and correctly.

In the short time it has been up and running, the group has amassed over 200 members and collected 125 bags of litter – including a significant amount of discarded single-use PPE.

“It is sad to see an increase of single use PPE being dumped on the streets […] they present a choking risk to wildlife and the nature of the plastic and its function means that they can not be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way,” said Gary.

Sharing an image of a discarded plastic mask tied on to a bench into the group, he commented:

“Not sure why this was about really. Someone with too many cable ties? An alternative to simply throwing it away? A new flag perhaps? Or an artistic commentary on plastic and how difficult it is to recycle? Answers on a postcard please!”

Across the way in Salford, local photographer Harley Bainbridge has been using his camera to document the rise in PPE pollution in recent weeks.

Sharing his images to Facebook, he highlights a shift that’s started taking place as the lockdown restrictions have been eased – contrasting the neighbourliness of the Thursday night claps with this recent increase in littering.

Photo courtesy of @harleybainbridge

“During the lockdown restrictions for the COVID-19 crisis we’ve been encouraged to think of others whenever we venture out of the door. To consider if what we are doing is essential and to support our communities in achieving the same.

“But, during this time I’ve become more aware of micro tribes, those we know and care for becoming part of our family whilst the rest of the work is some other tribe.

“We see this in the disregard for previous social norms, the increases in speeding, littering, aggression and hoarding.

“In these photos we see in my street, most only know their next door neighbour, if that, clapping for the NHS yet the street is littered with abandoned gloves, not only wasting PPE but potentially causing the spread amongst us”

Photo courtesy of Harley Bainbridge @harleybainbridge

This isn’t just an issue for Greater Manchester.

In Suffolk, one man collected over 50 discarded masks and twenty pairs of gloves in an afternoon spent litter picking in his area.

Meanwhile down in Cornwall, a  marine biologist found 171 items of PPE in just an hour whilst litter picking on her local beach.

As we learn to live with PPE, we must also learn how to properly dispose of it – in the bin.

If you do find any PPE littered in your area you can contact your local authority to have it removed, or if you do want to remove it yourself please make sure you follow the proper health and safety procedures so as to not put yourself or anyone else at risk.

Remember that there are many more sustainable alternatives to this single-use PPE, such as cloth masks that can be purchased from local makers (or made at home) and washed by hand.

The lockdown showed us how beautiful Manchester can be if we all clean up after ourselves. Let’s try and keep it that way.

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