While COVID-19 continues to impact the health of people worldwide, the virus is inadvertently wreaking havoc on the environment, too, as the mask litter problem worsens and finds its way into water sources.
This year’s Great British Beach Clean in September, for instance, found face masks and gloves, types of personal protection equipment (PPE), on 30% of beaches cleaned by volunteers. In addition to the environmental harm, organizers also expressed concern over the potential impact on marine mammals and other aquatic life.
“Considering mask wearing was only made mandatory in shops in England in late July, little more than three months before the Great British Beach Clean, the sharp increase in PPE litter should be a word of warning for what could be a new form of litter polluting our beaches in the future,” said clean-up coordinator Lizzie Prior, in a statement that also noted how volunteers found an average of 30 drinks containers per 100 metres of beach surveyed this year.
Even locals on Lord Howe Island, a remote World Heritage-listed island located hundreds of miles from Australia’s mainland, which has zero COVID-19 cases, have spotted face masks washed onto its shores. Over August and September, 1,112 masks were recovered.
PPE litter, which also includes wipes, is being swept into storm drains in countries all around the world. The litter is creating substantial clogs and pipe damage when flushed down toilets. In the U.S., cities such as Houston have reported sewage overflow increases since the pandemic began .
COVID-19 hotspots like Florida have been inundated by mask and glove litter. Sophie Ringel, founder of Clean Miami Beach, told new station WSVN that, “The amount of PPE I’m seeing, not just in the streets but also in the canal right here, is alarming and shocking.”
In areas like Halton Hills, Ontario, PPE litter has become such a concern that local officials have a COVID-19 hotline where people can file complaints if they’ve witnessed the littering of masks or gloves. Officials are reminding residents that bylaws exist to cover littering and offenders could wind up facing a $200 fine.
“Use a garbage can or take it home and throw it out there,” said Mayor Rick Bonnette, in a statement. “The Town should not have to tell people that littering is an offense and more than that, relying on others to dispose of their discarded personal protective equipment is a health hazard.”
Mask litter, which has been dubbed “the new cigarette butt” in social media, has even become a target of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Its officials have expressed concerns over a growing number of Canadian employees who have had to clean up littered PPE near store entrances and parking lots, further endangering workers who are already in positions of risk.
Toronto-based marine biologist Justine Ammendolia was supposed to spend her summer on a research trip to Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead, the researcher told CBC News that she spent the summer studying PPE litter in her Toronto neighbourhood. With the help of a friend, they made a geo-tagged map of all the COVID litter, which amounted to 1,300 pieces in just one month.
The City of Toronto, where the littering fine is $500, advises that masks, gloves and wipes be tied securely in a bag then placed in the garbage, as they are not recyclable or compostable.
“We’re asking people to stop it and we’re asking people to use the receptacles outside of hospitals and outside of food stores to look after these kind of things,” Mayor John Tory told reporters.
In Edmonton, Capital City Clean Up is now providing kits to help local businesses clean up discarded PPE. It includes items such as litter “grabbers”, gloves and garbage bags.
PPE litter solution opportunities
In the Montreal borough of Ville Saint-Laurent, officials are testing out PPE recycling bins on streets and in public buildings. The bins are emptied and sent out to a TerraCycle facility in New Jersey, where a team works to turn the masks into pallets, furniture and even railroad ties.
Orlando Rojas, scientific director of the BioProducts Institute and a faculty member with the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) faculty of forestry, faculty of applied science and faculty of science, said he’s been regularly photographing some of the pandemic pollution he sees in the environment. He is confident that his solution—the biodegradable mask—could be sourced and manufactured entirely within Canada.
“The Can-Mask is a promising solution, as it pairs B.C. wood—a marvellous material with future potential for advancing our bioeconomy and creating jobs—with B.C. industry expertise and technology developed and tested right here at UBC,” Rojas said in a statement.