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Saskatchewan city links recent sewer clogs to flushed masks

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As water workers discover more blockages in sewer lines, the Saskatchewan City of Prince Albert has issued an advisory to its 36,000 residents to stop flushing face masks down the toilet.

Geoff Soderberg, Prince Albert’s water and sewer manager, said at least two recent clogs were linked to masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Repairs cost approximately $1,000 this time, but could lead to more extensive damage in the future, he warned.

The illegal flushing of non-biodegradable items, reminded Soderberg, is in contravention of City Bylaw No. 48 of 2015.

“Masks cannot be recycled and should only be disposed of in household garbage bins,” the City of Prince Albert stated in its latest advisory.

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In some communities, crews are cleaning sewage pumping stations a couple of times a week that previously needed it once a month. Others have either installed, or considered installing, debris grinding pumps to combat the clogs.

Most residents are hesitant to pick up used masks due to risks of virus transmission, so many of the littered items are blown or swept away into storm drains.

Next door in Alberta, a group of frustrated Lethbridge residents collected more than 1,250 littered masks from city streets in just a single afternoon earlier this month. They delivered the dirty masks to the doorsteps of City Hall in plastic bags as a plea for officials to take more direct action on cleanup measures. An additional community mask clean up is scheduled for March 28.

Last spring, a number of U.S. cities announced that sanitary sewer overflows jumped more than 30% due to clogs from items such as disposable wet wipes, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

The PPE litter issue has plagued countries all over the world since the pandemic began. The 2020 Great British Beach Clean in September, for instance, found face masks and gloves on 30% of beaches cleaned by volunteers.

A recent study by the University of Guelph noted that PPE is accumulating in significant levels at grocery store parking lots and in residential neighbourhoods.

“This is a unique item that’s been introduced into our daily lives and we just don’t know how to handle it,” stated Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, who helped conduct the study.

As wipes, masks and gloves continue to clog sewer systems around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at the University of British Columbia’s BioProducts Institute produced one of the first biodegradable N95 masks.

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