During the pandemic era, part of my daily routine has been to take a long hike in a nearby regional park. During my walks, I see two or three discarded masks on my route.

Shoshanah Jacobs, a biology professor at Ontario, Canada’s University of Guelph, also had the same observation when she looked around her neighborhood. In fact, she gathered a group to do a detailed study of masks’ local environmental impact.

In their analysis, the team found that masks and gloves were discarded near the places where they were required to be worn . . . as if people couldn’t wait to be rid of them.

The students in charge of collecting the data focused on two residential neighbourhoods, two grocery store parking lots, a hospital district and a walking trail. They would take daily evening walks for five weeks from late May through June and recorded their finds on a Marine Debris Tracker app to mark locations, dates, times, and types of litter.

In the five weeks, they found 1,300 pieces of discarded PPE over an area equivalent to about 50 football fields, something Ammendolia, a U of G zoology grad, deemed “extremely alarming.”

They found the most PPE litter in areas where people tend to go in and out of such as grocery stores, parking lots, areas around hospitals, residential streets and trails.

Waste companies in the United Kingdom are also noting the problem.

The huge number of face masks being put into the bin or dropped on the street is raising concerns about the amount which might be leaking into rivers and the sea, said Charlotte Green, from waste company TradeWaste.co.uk.

“If you walk around any street now you will see disposable face masks being blown around with leaves in the gutter – they are the new cigarette butt – people are chucking them after use,” she said.

“We know that 53m are being sent to landfill each day – but just how many end up elsewhere is the very scary part.”

She said masks were being found in streams, rivers, and oceans – similar to single-use plastic bottles.

Environmentalists in France and Hong Kong have also investigated the issue.

In France alone, authorities have ordered two billion disposable masks, said Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre. “Knowing that … soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean,” he wrote on social media alongside video of a dive showing algae-entangled masks and soiled gloves in the sea near Antibes.

…Earlier this year the Hong Kong-based OceansAsia began voicing similar concerns, after a survey of marine debris in the city’s uninhabited Soko Islands turned up dozens of disposable masks.

“On a beach about 100 metres long, we found about 70,” said Gary Stokes of OceansAsia. One week later, another 30 masks had washed up. “And that’s on an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere.”

Yet, it is activists just like this who are pressing for continued mask mandates. And now, with the promotion of “double masking,” there could be even more “mask pollution.”

For consistency, if masks are pollutants, then all mask mandates should end. Maybe then I won’t have to hike with a disposal bag and a pair of gloves.


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