Wearing a face mask has rightly become the new normal for many, but some Northlanders are yet to work on the next step of safely disposing of them.
Te Tai Tokerau Debris Monitoring Project (TTTDMP), led by NorthTec Environmental Management tutor Dr Manue Martinez, has collected 211 masks in a week from parts of Whangārei.
Set up in 2019, TTTDMP is a collaboration between Northland Regional Council, NorthTec, NGOs and passionate citizen scientists (volunteers who contribute to scientific projects, usually by collecting or analysing data) in Northland. It is part of a multi-layered approach that provided litter data for prevention, advocacy and policy against litter in our environment.
Dr Martinez said she was surprised and heartbroken to see a massive increase in face masks littering the streets.
"Since last Sunday, some of my friends and I have collected 211 masks from Whangārei. We haven't covered the whole town. We just walked around the city.
"There are definitely more masks littered in Whangārei."
Dr Martinez had been an avid rubbish clean-up advocate in the city for over two years and said the masks were now making up a big portion of the clean-ups.
"It is not just Whangārei or Northland but a worldwide problem. We are talking about billions of masks used every day. Unless we can dispose of them properly, they will end in the environment and create problems.
"Because the single-use masks are made of plastic, they will disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces in the environment.
"We need to educate people to say 'yes, we need to feel safe but we also need to take care of the environment.'
"It's better to use reusable masks over disposable ones. If you are wearing disposable masks, make sure you are disposing of them properly and not in the open.
"If you can, please cut the elastic strings from the mask, so that it does not end up entangling or killing an animal or bird."
Another issue with face masks was that people who would usually pick up rubbish in any other situation won't pick them up due to the health and safety risk involved, said Dr Martinez.
"A company in Auckland is recycling used masks to make plastic pipes, so maybe we could have different designated places in Whangārei to collect the masks and send them to the Auckland company.
"Similar to the soft plastic bins in the supermarkets and other places, we could have a bin designed to collect face masks. We can place such bins at different locations and hopefully dispose of them efficiently."
Dr Martinez was conducting a survey on mask littering in Northland and said she understood if people do not want to take part in it for safety reasons, but anyone who'd like to help could send her the collected face masks.
She appreciated the help from her fellow citizen scientists with TTTDMP, Tanya Cook, Emese Tornai and Satchet Guilloux, who helped with the collection of some of the data over the past week.
"We used the ArcGIS Survey123 app to collect the data. It allowed me to create a specific survey for that purpose, which can be shared with anyone interested in helping (the survey can be opened in any browser too).
"We haven't been everywhere, but we collected masks from some streets in Onerahi, Tikipunga, Kamo, Raumanga and City Centre.
"I found 55 masks while walking 12km Saturday. As we get more data over time, I'd be able to tell how big a problem it is in Northland."
Single-use masks are typically made from polypropylene, a fossil fuel-derived plastic that can take hundreds of years to break down. Meanwhile, they also shed tiny harmful microplastics into the waterways, which are then consumed by unsuspecting fish (and then us, when we eat seafood).
NRC's group manager – regulatory services Colin Dall said as with all plastic litter there was a risk that animals could become entangled or mistake it for food.
"Recent overseas research has found that when the masks are submerged in water, plastic fibres were released as well other chemical pollutants."
(If one wishes to take part in the survey, contact Dr Manue Martinez at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Ministry of Health guidance to safely dispose of face masks:
Single-use face masks
Dispose in a closed lidded bin or place into a bag and seal before putting into a rubbish bin or taking home.
Clean your hands after disposing of the face mask with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser (containing at least 60 per cent alcohol). Ensure your hands are dry.
Do not re-use or try to disinfect single-use disposable face masks.
Cleaning home-made facial coverings or cloth masks
Wash the mask in a washing machine with detergent at 60c.
After putting the mask in the washing machine, clean your hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser (containing at least 60 per cent alcohol). Ensure your hands are dry.
Dry the mask completely before you use it again. Do not use a damp mask.
We would encourage people to use reusable masks and not disposables.
Disposables should be put inside a bag and then disposed of, along with other household rubbish.