In one week, Fredericton woman collects nearly 600 masks littering city

New Brunswick

Sue Fisher is a woman on a mission: to pick up face masks she finds dropped on the ground. In just one week, the Fredericton woman has collected almost 600 masks. She hopes others will join her in cleaning up the pandemic litter that can be a hazard for wildlife.

Sue Fisher of Fredericton has collected nearly 600 disposable masks across the city this past week.(Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

Sue Fisher is a woman on a mission: to pick up face masks she finds dropped on the ground. In just one week, the Fredericton woman has collected almost 600 masks.

And that's just a start, as she hopes others will join her in cleaning up the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) trash that has become ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic and can be a hazard for wildlife.

"If everyone in town has one mask they've lost, we would have 50,000 masks on our streets," Fisher said.

In her spare time, Fisher picks up the masks in residential areas of the city's downtown, nearby Willie O'Ree Place on the north side, and at schools around town. The proliferation of PPE around schools doesn't surprise her.

"When you're a kid, you're juggling a backpack and your mask."

Fisher said she found more than 70 masks near the Nashwaaksis Middle School in Fredericton. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

Sometimes, her teenage daughter, Muriel, will help her track down the single-use blue and white surgical masks that have been a common choice since mask-wearing began being required during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of those products are made from non-biodegradable, petroleum-based polymers and are designed to be used only once and then discarded.

"She's got an eagle eye for spotting them," said Fisher. "She definitely recognizes the problem."

Not all the discarded masks Fisher finds are disposable. Some are fabric.

'Just pick them up'

Fisher said she doesn't want to blame anyone for losing a mask or two — she even admitted to losing a disposable mask herself.

"I felt sick about it."

Fisher just wants the public to be a bit more mindful when they use masks or throw them away.

Some of the face masks that Fisher found discarded are cloth masks, which are meant to be reused. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

She says everyone should carry some gloves and a plastic bag when they're out — just in case they discover a mask lying around.

"If you see them, just pick them up."

Though Fisher says the global pandemic may have helped to improve the climate and air quality somewhat, the littering of disposable masks is happening around the world.

One peer-reviewed study published in the academic journal Environmental Science & Technology last year estimated people around the world are using 129 billion disposable masks and 65 billion disposable gloves each month.

As of June 29, 2020, the federal government estimated that, based on projected PPE demand over the next year, approximately 63,000 tons of PPE related to COVID-19 could end up as waste.

Fisher keeps the masks she finds in a plastic back on her deck. She plans to cut the strings and throw them in the trash to protect wildlife. (Submitted by Sue Fisher)

A goal to protect wildlife

Currently, Fisher is keeping the masks she picks up in a plastic garbage bag on her deck.

She plans to take each mask and cut the strings off — while wearing rubber gloves and her own reliable mask, of course. Then, she'll throw them out.

"It just seems logical to me that that would be a hazard for wildlife."

Seabird biologists have been expressing concerns about medical masks ending up in waterways and entangling birds and other wildlife after images were posted online of a gull in Newfoundland trapped in the ear loop of a mask.

Marine bird biologist and photographer Lancy Cheng found this seagull snared in a medical mask at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's. (Lancy Cheng/Facebook)

Holly Hogan, who has been studying marine birds for 30 years, told CBC'sin Newfoundland last month that about 129 billion face masks and 69 billion disposable gloves were used every month in 2020.

"Not surprisingly, a large number of these ended up in the ocean, and there are very conservative estimates [that] between 1.5 and two billion face masks ended up in the ocean in 2020," she said.

As the pandemic persists, Fisher is hoping more people will see her message and help her in her mission to pick up the mask trash.

"I hope it hits home in a productive way."


Elizabeth Fraser is a reporter/editor with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. She's originally from Manitoba. Story tip?

    With files from Information Morning Fredericton, CBC News Newfoundland & Labrador

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