Illustration for article titled Send This Professor Pictures of Medical Trash on the Streets

Photo: Bryan Menegus

I’d nearly missed it, as it lay half-swallowed by a storm drain, but the familiar shade of cornflower blue was enough to make me stop. I crouched down, snapped a photo of a single latex glove with my ancient iPhone, and moved down the block hunting for more. Forty-five minutes, 1.76 miles, and four city blocks later, I uploaded over 150 individual, geotagged photos of trash to the cloud storage of an oceanographer I’d never met. Maybe soon, you will as well.

Using this website as a platform to complain, I wrote a blog yesterday chastising my fellow New Yorkers for abandoning these piece of personal protective equipment in the streets. What I did not expect was that three hours later, a professor at Louisiana State University would reach out and ask me to help him do research. Not only was I vindicated in my kvetching, I was being put to work.

“This project began as a way of satisfying my own curiosity about the scope of this new class of plastic waste that was appearing on the streets of my neighborhood in Baton Rouge,” Professor Mark Benfield told me via email. “I’d read about problems with discarded masks in Hong Kong parks and beaches. When I began to see gloves on our streets while I was out getting some exercise, I thought I’d try to map them.”

The study, which he hopes to publish soon, is “not a comprehensive global inventory but rather an opportunistic first look at the patterns in different places around the world.” So far, the research includes observations made by his colleagues in New Orleans, San Diego, Long Island, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Canakkale, Turkey—and now, Brooklyn.

A map of medical waste in four square blocks of Crown Heights, Brooklyn

A map of medical waste in four square blocks of Crown Heights, Brooklyn
Screenshot: Google Earth/Mark Benfield

You might well be wondering what interest Benfield, an oceanographer, has in the trash we throw on dry land. In recent years his area of focus has shifted toward microplastic pollution, a problem of staggering scale to marine life and, by extension, human life too. “Most plastic garbage is destined for the oceans,” Benfield explained. “If what we’re finding on the streets winds up in our waters and then the ocean, we’re compounding an already frightening problem. If you think a sea turtle finds plastic shopping bags an attractive meal, wait until they find a glove. I can’t imagine a more jellyfish-like piece of garbage.”

Useful data of course will require repeated surveys—which is why I’ll be walking the same four-block loop every three or four days for the next two weeks. When I asked Benfield what a change in observed quantities could tell us, it was basically all bad news. “Increases will allow us to estimate rates of accumulation,” he said. “Decreases, particularly after rainfall events may suggest losses to stormwater systems and ultimately transport into rivers and the oceans.” This would hold especially true in New York City, where the normal street sweeping schedule suspended has been suspended through at least April 28.

A considerably more thoughtful person (I referred to PPE litterers as “barbarians”), Benfield provided a more-nuanced hypothesis on what was driving this new genre of refuse, pointing to fear, herd behavior, and unexpectedly, infrastructure, as culprits. “Obviously people view these items as being contaminated with the virus. They don’t want them in their cars nor their pockets,” he wrote. “When other people see the stuff on the ground, I think it emboldens them to do the same. Litter attracts litter. Often they’re dumped in partially concealed locations. That suggests that people know they shouldn’t dump them and try to hide the fact that they did. In Shenzhen there are dedicated PPE disposal bins that are quite common and they don’t seem to have the same amount of waste that other places do.”

I’ll be doing my little part to help collect this data for Benfield, but I thought, among the frequently insightful and not-always-awful Gizmodo commentariat, I might be able to recruit a few more people to the cause.

The requirements, for those who feel comfortable going outside during a pandemic, are:

  • a cell phone with photo location data turned on
  • a GPS-enabled fitness app (I used MapMyRun)
  • about an hour of your time every few days
  • the sociological fortitude to be observed by your neighbors repeatedly photographing garbage

Contributors will receive copies of the paper and an acknowledgement. If you’re interested, we set up covid19wa[email protected] to field potential volunteers—send an email there to get more detailed instructions from Benfield and access to the shared cloud storage folder.