Five Lethbridge residents took it upon themselves to tackle some litter that’s piled up in the past several months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After seeing an abundance of improperly discarded face masks scattered around the city, they collected a total of 1,253 face masks–both disposable and reusable– within the span of four hours.
“I wish it was less,” said Will Woods, one of the community members who took part on the weekend. “I really wish it was less. But knowing the numbers are there, it kind of blows my mind.”
Woods said he first noticed the problem during a walk to work, where he was able to collect 16 face masks in one single cluster.
Non-medical masks to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus have been recommended to Canadians since May 2020. Since then, a city bylaw and provincial mandate were put in place.
Woods is disappointed to see this new kind of litter becoming an issue, and knows it could pose a safety risk to both people and the environment.
“I’ve seen kids pick up things in parks they should never touch,” he said. “A mask is (another) thing,” he said.
“They are everywhere, and I can pick out points in the city where I’ve seen where I should go and start picking them up.”
While his efforts have mainly been concentrated in north Lethbridge, Woods believes the problem is much more widespread.
“It’s not a north side, south side, west side, east side problem,” Woods explained. “I’m sure it’s not just a Lethbridge problem, because I’ve heard from a couple of people… it’s everywhere.”
Dr. Daniel Gregson, an associate professor at the Cumming School of Medicine with expertise in microbiology and infectious diseases, says the risk of contracting COVID-19 by walking past a mask on the street is “almost zero,” adding the likelihood of infection from other people through airborne particles is much higher than from objects.
He commends people for wanting to help clean up their communities, and just advises caution.
“I would say that the risk is relatively low, but I would recommend (if people are going to) do it, (touch) the mask as little as possible. If you have gloves, use gloves,” Gregson said.
“Make sure you don’t touch your face at all once you’ve touched the mask, and then do hand hygiene once you’ve disposed of it.”
The City of Lethbridge also tasks its parks department with clean-up, which happens most frequently in the spring and summer.
Parks manager David Ellis says while face masks are a new kind of litter the city hadn’t seen prior to the pandemic, citizens haven’t really brought the issue to their attention.
“We’re not really seeing an increase in reports on specifically masks,” Ellis said. “They’re part of the general litter that we address.”
Ellis says crews “regularly and routinely” collect litter from the city’s roadways, parks, and other areas. When spring weather hits, clean-up amps up due to stronger winds and melting snow.
He adds the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed the way they address litter.
“When it comes to collecting litter, we basically treat all litter the same: with an abundance of caution,” he said.
“We know that accidents happen, we know that garbage does blow out unexpectedly,” Ellis said. “But if everybody can do their part just to consciously keep litter from escaping and blowing around, that would certainly help our job and keep our community attractive.”
Residents can call 311 to report garbage and debris.