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Mask littering a problem locally and worldwide

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA face mask left curb-side at North Medford High School. Some people in the Rogue Valley say mask-littering is not an issue; others say it is.
Small towns, big cities and others are finding discarded masks — and they’re ending up in the ocean, experts say

At the end of a recent school day, Tabitha Badley had filled a bag with 24 masks littered around the outside of her workplace, Rogue River Junior-Senior High School. It was the most masks she’d picked up at one time.

Badley, who works as an instructional assistant and has two kids attending the Rogue River School District, questions the intention of masks being worn in schools to protect others from COVID-19 when at the same time, people seem to just toss them anywhere but a trash can at the end of the day.

“What kind of footprint are we leaving for the future if we’re littering all these masks all over the place,” Badley said.

Mask littering isn’t limited to Rogue River schools or the city itself. It’s an issue that has been observed across the country, which has been deeply divided for the last two years over whether face coverings effectively protect against COVID-19.

Now, as many states, including Oregon, get ready to lift their indoor mask mandates, the problem of mask littering is a mixed bag. Some people in the valley say it is not an issue; others say it is.

Mask littering in Medford

Officials with the city of Medford said crews that are in charge of parks and public rights-of-way are in the former camp, referring the Mail Tribune to other entities that might have a say.

That included Rogue Retreat, an organization dedicated to helping the local homeless population. Programs such as Clean Sweep enlists homeless individuals to help gather up litter as one way to ready them for the workforce.

“It’s been an amazing program that helps give people a purpose and at the same time builds them back up so they can enter the workforce,” said Matthew Vorderstrasse, Rogue Retreat development director.

He said masks are a “noticeable” item Clean Sweep personnel are seeing — the last count was at least 100 on sidewalks and around businesses.

“It makes sense to me, because it’s an additional piece of clothing people are wearing and a lot of people don’t like them,” Vorderstrasse said.

He acknowledged some mask littering could be accidental, such as when one falls out of someone’s pocket in a parking lot, but other times, he believes, it is done on purpose. Vorderstrasse said quite a few masks are found outside businesses.

“They will take them off and toss them right in front of the building they went into,” Vorderstrasse said.

Small-town response

In Southern Oregon cities besides Medford, both residents and city officials say mask littering has been a problem.

Take Central Point, for instance. Steph Hendrickson, who leads the city’s chamber of commerce, saw over 20 masks the last time she picked up litter on Pine Street during a quarterly clean-up session with Kiwanis.

“I think that people have excess masks on their persons these days,” Hendrickson said, adding that the number of masks people carry increased once they knew the pandemic wasn’t going away soon.

In her daily life, it does not appear more masks are being littered; it only seems that way during clean-up sessions, Hendrickson noted.

Unlike Vorderstrasse, she does not fault the wearer. She believes that because the masks are lightweight, they often fall out of people’s hands.

“As a woman and a mother, I have seven things in my hands sometimes when I’m getting out of the car,” Hendrickson said. “So this lightweight thing that’s hanging on my finger, it might accidentally slip off.”

During the Pine Street pickup, the Kiwanis group finds more coffee cups than masks, she noted, and face-coverings have only slightly increased since the pandemic began.

“It didn’t go from two to 200,” Hendrickson said.

Miles up the highway from Central Point is the city of Rogue River. As the pandemic went on, officials such as Public Works Director Michael Bollweg said his city noticed “a dramatic increase” in the amount of garbage that was generated and worried it could pose a problem.

“Disposable masks then, and even now, were left as litter on our sidewalks, drainage curbs and streets,” Bollweg wrote in an email. “Streams during high water once subsiding would have an increase in masks and other debris deposited in the vegetation. The amount of increased debris including the masks has definitely had a significant impact on our region.”

An oceanic problem, too

The Rogue River flows into the Pacific Ocean. That’s where groups like Ocean Conservancy come in — they’ve been utilizing a band of volunteers, including on the Beaver State’s coastline, to pick up waste during the pandemic.

Those volunteers reported that as of March 2021 they had collected 107,219 items of personal protective equipment from beaches and waterways worldwide in the second half of 2020. But that 107,000 figure, Ocean Conservancy officials claim, is “a vast undercount.”

“Volunteers collected more than 100,000 items of PPE in under six months, and we know that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Allison Schutes, director of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, in a news release.

A spokeswoman for the Ocean Conservancy told the Mail Tribune that since the 2021 report was issued, as of the start of this month, another 142,634 pieces of PPE were recorded by volunteers in 92 countries, with 43,533 of those pieces in the U.S.

The Ocean Conservancy provided preliminary figures to the Mail Tribune of PPE found on the Oregon Coast since the last report in March of 2021. Their count: 78 PPE items.

Dr. Britta Baechler, senior director of ocean plastic research at Ocean Conservancy, issued a prepared statement to the Mail Tribune on mask littering.

“It’s simple: trash travels. Oftentimes, people assume that if they can’t see the water or live far away from a coastline that their waste and plastic use has no impact on the ocean. Unfortunately, that’s not true,” Baechler stated, noting this is true for inland cities like Medford or bodies of water like the Rogue River. “Whatever you’re seeing on the streets, near gutters and storm drains, you can bet a lot of that is ending up in waterways and eventually traveling out to the ocean.”

Microplastics, which derive from items like face-coverings, are too small to see with the naked eye, the doctor added. But those, too, can be carried out to sea.

“Because they are so lightweight, (they) can be carried long distances in the air as well,” Baechler stated.

Call to action

At home in the Rogue Valley, residents remain concerned about mask littering and want people to do their part to protect the environment.

Badley acknowledged the issue has a “domino effect,” not just creating problems locally, but worldwide.

“What is happening to the environment because of the overuse of these masks?” she said. “For me, it’s super concerning. Are we being a good steward of the Earth?”

Hendrickson looks at the issue of mask littering as just one part of the problem.

“All litter has an impact, environmentally. Masks, I don't think, should be lumped into their own category,” she said. “The lids from your coffee cup; the receipt from your bank that slipped away from your fingers in the wind. … We could all be more aware of our affect on the environment.”

Vorderstrasse thinks the lifting of the mask mandate March 11 will “naturally” reduce the amount of face coverings littered about town. But he pointed to other populations who won’t stop wearing them after that date.

“This issue won’t be gone entirely, but we will see a (diminishing) of it,” Vorderstrasse said.

He had a message for the entire community to be more responsible.

“There is already an excessive amount of trash that accumulates in our downtown area,” Vorderstrasse said. “I’d just encourage people to look for a proper trash receptacle to put not only their face mask, but also other trash people leave on the ground.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.