Barehanded on a Citi Bike, Ryan McKenzie, the owner of a NoMad bar called Patent Pending, rolled through his hushed East Village neighborhood on cleanup patrol the other afternoon. In the early days of the lockdown, many New Yorkers marvelled at how litter had vanished from the streets, much as smog had cleared from the skies above New Delhi and Los Angeles. But McKenzie, after seeing a handwritten sign on a lamppost which read “Please Don’t Throw Your Gloves In The Street,” began noticing them: blue and purple disposable gloves dotting sidewalks and tree pits, and swirled by rain runoff onto sewer grates. Now he sees them everywhere.
“I’m an ocean guy,” he said. “I surf. This will all wash out to the bays and, in time, be distributed all over the world. These gloves will be in Greenland.” He added that the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recommends frequent handwashing, not gloves, to the general public. “People are so selfish and shortsighted that they’ll turn a health crisis into an environmental crisis as well,” he said. “It drives me nuts.”
Photographs of crumpled, discarded gloves have been appearing on social media lately, under the hashtag #TheGloveChallenge, which was started by Maria Algarra, the founder of a Miami-based organization called Clean This Beach Up. Parking lots are particularly hard hit; drivers doff their gloves before getting into their cars. Subway exits are another hot spot.
The gloves will wind up in waterways. Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency and the founder of a nonprofit called Beyond Plastics, said, “The gloves may be too flimsy for sewage-plant screens to catch, and shoot right by them,” ending up in riverbeds, and water columns, and on seafloors. Or they could wash out to sea directly from storm drains and sewer overflows. Even before the pandemic, the city’s sewer system was spending nineteen million dollars a year to deal with so-called fatbergs, caused by the buildup of tons of personal-hygiene products, condoms, and wipes (many marketed as flushable).
When the plastic in vinyl and nitrile gloves gets in seawater, it becomes coated with dimethyl sulfide from algae and bacteria, which smells delectable to some species of birds, turtles, and marine mammals. Once ingested, the debris—even biodegradable plant-derived latex—can obstruct these creatures’ digestive tracts and kill them. (Plastics can also disintegrate into smaller pieces, which enter the food chain at the very bottom; a new species of crustacean, discovered deep in the Mariana Trench, in 2014, was named Eurythenes plasticus for the contents of its stomach.)
“Those gloves will be very tied to this moment,” Robin Nagle, an anthropologist-in-residence at the Department of Sanitation, said. “It’s heartbreaking. You are deliberately putting off onto someone else a potentially deadly hazard.” (Researchers are looking into whether the coronavirus might spread through spillovers of untreated sewage.)
In Hong Kong, glove-wearing is less common, but disposable masks are the norm. Gary Stokes, a co-founder of OceansAsia, a marine-conservation organization, began finding discarded medical masks on beaches about six weeks after COVID-19 alerts were first sounded. In New York, the castoffs are just starting to appear. Last week, dozens of gloves and masks were discovered on the shores of Jamaica Bay at Canarsie Pier, Rockaway Community Park, Dubos Point Wildlife Sanctuary, Floyd Bennett Field, Rockaway Beach, and MacNeil Park, and along the banks of the Bronx and Hackensack Rivers. “These are places no one goes when it’s cold like this, except for a few birders. So they have to be drifting up,” Alex Zablocki, the executive director of the Jamaica Bay–Rockaway Parks Conservancy, said, of the debris.
“The city needs to come up with a truly innovative campaign against glove litter,” Enck said. It’s easy for the issue to fall through the cracks of city bureaucracy. The Department of Sanitation is responsible for street sweeping, but sidewalk cleanup is the purview of the city’s individual business-improvement districts. With most businesses closed, it’s left to people like McKenzie to pick up litter.
A pandemic caused by airborne particles is not the best time for in-your-face confrontations, but McKenzie is undaunted. “I haven’t seen someone throwing gloves in the gutter, but I’d probably be yelling at them if I did,” he said, brandishing a new metal grabber that he had just bought on First Avenue. His original was stolen last week, from the sidewalk in front of his bar. ♦