Equivalent of 94 masks per person tossed into Metro Vancouver trash in 2021

“They were everywhere,” said Juan Jose Alava, research associate at UBC and a principal investigator at the Ocean Pollution Research Unit.

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Metro Vancouver residents threw away an estimated 260 million masks in 2021 — the equivalent of 94 masks per person, according to a staff report for Metro Vancouver’s zero waste committee.

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That was more than double the number of masks discarded in 2020, a side-effect of public health mandates on masking that were in place for most of 2021.

“They were everywhere,” said Juan Jose Alava, research associate at UBC and a principal investigator at the Ocean Pollution Research Unit, of the rise in discarded masks. “Not just in the city but in remote areas.”

Alava said he found discarded masks hanging from the branches of mangrove trees during a recent expedition in the Galapagos islands, an indication of the pervasiveness of ocean pollution.

Terry Fulton, a senior engineer at Metro Vancouver Solid Waste Services said the 2021 study took place in December 2021, when COVID-19 case numbers were elevated due to the Omicron variant.

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“The higher PPE levels estimated in 2021 are not altogether surprising,” he said in an email.

“You could see it coming,” Rashid Sumaila, UBC professor and Canada Research Chair in Interdisciplinary Ocean and Fisheries Economics, said of the increase in personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves ending up in landfills and in the sea.

“You can talk about straws and all the other single-use plastics — we can easily stop using that,” he said. “But it’s not the same when it’s people’s lives and safety.”

Single-use items, including PPE, made up less than five per cent of Metro’s waste by weight but have a massive effect on marine ecosystems. Plastic never fully degrades, instead breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming what is known as microplastic — small pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size. Microplastics are ingested by fish and other marine animals and can end up in the food we eat.

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Sumaila noted that the plastics used in medical equipment are “going to be more durable,” meaning they will take even longer to break down than plastics typically found at the supermarket.

Discarded masks were still outnumbered by shopping bags and takeout cups, which have been a mainstay of single-use trash found in Metro landfills since monitoring began in 2018.

About 321 million shopping bags, mostly plastic, were counted in the 2021 survey, up from 256 million in 2018. Fulton said he expects to see that number decrease “as more municipalities take action on single-use items like retail bags.”

Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond and Port Moody have bylaws in place to restrict or reduce the use of plastic bags, straws, utensils and other single-use plastics. Several others, including Delta, Coquitlam, Burnaby and Maple Ridge are planning similar rules.

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Sumaila said a regional approach to managing plastic waste was essential.

“There’s no question that if we do it collaboratively at the regional level, then we might be able to take care of it better,” he said.

Alava agreed this type of approach is critical, calling it something that “can really empower and engage the community.”

“The ocean is not going to solve the problem for us,” Alava said.

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