Pandemic pollution: Discarded face masks turning up everywhere

They are the tumbleweeds of our time.

Discarded face masks are turning up everywhere.

“When you get a windy day like this, you can step out and it’s gone instantly, you don’t even know where it went,” said Kris Clark of Oceans Blue Corp, a nonprofit focused on marine debris.

At Shine Tidelands State Park on Hood Canal, Clark regularly finds masks during beach cleanups.

“Pretty much anytime you come out here you can find some kind of medical waste or PPE,” Clark said.

During a recent visit, he found 11 masks in a little more than half an hour.

Most likely they blew out of cars.

He also found sanitizing wipes, plastic bags and a glove.

The glove probably washed ashore.

The Ocean Conservancy reports volunteers worldwide collected 107,000 PPE items from beaches and waterways in the last six months.

“We know that is a gross undercount of what is really out there,” said Nick Mallos of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program.

Thirty-seven percent of volunteers responding to an Ocean Conservancy survey reported finding PPE submerged in water.

“This tells us the PPE pollution issue is very huge,” Mallos said.

Elastic straps on masks can trap seabirds.

And PPE is adding to the long-lasting problem of plastic in the oceans.

Microbeads from common products get into the marine food chain.

One study found people ingest the equivalent of a credit card every week in microplastics from a variety of sources.

“Beyond the environmental impact there’s a danger to humans,” Clark said.

The pandemic pollution problem is also evident on highways.

“Since Covid, we see these everywhere, especially these disposable masks,” said Justin Boneau, a supervisor of the youth corps litter cleanup program run by the Washington State Department of Ecology, as he picked up trash along an I-5 on-ramp in Mountlake Terrace.

“They blow and they are very visible. They kind of collect at the end of guard rails and jersey barriers,” said Dan Skillman of Ecology.

Amber Smith, the department’s litter prevention coordinator, said this new source of trash comes as all kinds of litter piles up.

The pandemic put the state’s adopt-a-highway program on hold and limited how many cleanup workers can ride in a van.

Money for litter prevention was only recently restored.

“For 12 years, Washington has not had a litter-prevention campaign and I think our roads reflect that,” Smith said.

But you can help.

When you’re done with a face mask, cut off the straps to keep birds from getting caught.

And make sure masks end up in a trash bag, so they don’t go blowing in the wind.