(CNN)During a walk around his block in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mark Benfield was struck by how many discarded gloves and masks he saw on his short route.
The Louisiana State University professor, who focuses on microplastic pollution, decided to track the waste he saw with pictures geotagged to the location where he spotted it.
"It was a lot more PPE waste than I expected," he told CNN.
What Benfield saw in his short walk route is a snapshot of a problem that's apparent all across the country. As more Americans wear personal protective equipment in their daily lives, they're also littering it all over streets, parking lots and parks.
The problem is so severe that many state and county public health departments have issued advisories against throwing masks and gloves on the streets and parking lots.
Swampscott Police Department in Massachusetts has made unlawful littering punishable up to $5,500.
"We need to contain the spread of COVID-19 and do the right lawful thing by throwing these items in the trash," the Swampscott Police Department told its residents in a Facebook post, adding that it's happening all over town and not just at Stop & Shop. "Please stop littering, this is making more work and worry for the people having to pick up this trash."
Discarding plastic can create an environmental hazard
Since his first experiment, Benfield has created a methodological survey with his colleagues around the world. People can email him -- at firstname.lastname@example.org -- to participate in the survey and help his study on how expansive this waste problem is.
Two Chicago residents recently sent him data to show the amount of PPE littered in the span of a few blocks.
The map, using data from the survey responders, shows Chicago's Hermosa/Logan Square neighborhood on April 16. Masks are shown as circles, gloves as triangles, and wipes as squares. The yellow area is their survey area.
"Preliminary data from these survey responses shows that gloves are the most common PPE waste," Benfield said. "In the US, masks are difficult for the public to get. So gloves are most commonly found PPE waste on the street. In China, masks are freely available. So you see more masks discarded."
Gloves, masks and wipes are all plastic. When that's discarded into the environment, it goes into sewer systems or water bodies. It breaks down into microplastics, which still attract pesticides and other harmful chemicals. So when the marine animals eat it, they don't just get the plastic, they get the chemicals too.
"I can't think of a material better designed to look like a jellyfish than gloves," Benfield adds.
Other experts agree: This is a growing environmental hazard.
"The PPE is intended to help us fight a public health challenge, not create a plastic pollution problem," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
The damage goes far beyond the marine ecosystem. Besides littering PPE in public areas, people are also disposing of these mat