The Problem with Masks

As I fly back from scenic British Columbia and recall all the beautiful landscapes, I can’t help but reflect on the state of our planet. While climate change remains the green issue du jour. My focus prior to the pandemic was pushing for the elimination of single use plastics. While some environmentalists found solace in the reduction of travel carbon during the pandemic – the amount of plastic waste from PPE has exploded. For every countless mountain I gazed at – it was mired with every countless discarded, mask I saw. Since no one seems to want to pick up this litter, am I sure it will soon be blown away to the nearby ocean.  So please enough of these masks are the new normal talk. There is nothing new about taking care of us first and putting the planet second.

What has been both surprising and disappointing is that the environmental crowd has been rather silent on this issue. The anti-maskers have brought more attention to this issue than greens.  So, I don’t want this to be read as an anti-mask rant.  I don’t enjoy wearing them, but they are a minor inconvenience to everyday life.  What concerns me is that these single use plastics will continue to be worn by a neurotic public long after they are required.  They are an environmental disaster! The ubiquitous disposable surgical blue versions should be banned along with all other the other single use plastics as soon as possible.

At the beginning of my trip out west the mask was optional. I must admit I did not wear mine consistently when out and about. I did get a few looks if in a place where I was the  odd duck – either from wearing one or not.  I genuinely like people, so a big reason I have not opposed wearing them is that I know it makes others feel more at ease. I do hope once we can safely remove the mask no long-term stigma remains. I am worried however when virtue signaling champions like lululemon make their priorities very clear.  They like many large retailers have door signs stating that regardless of mandate “our customers wear masks”. What happened to environmental corporate advocacy?  The planet can’t absorb people wearing masks now, let alone when they are no longer required.   

Sadly, they will be required at school again this fall. I feel for people who must wear a mask for hours on end. I will once again throw out countless disposable masks each day as our board has prohibited the use of reusable cloth masks.  It would be nice if the greens drew a line in the sand here, but since cloth are deemed not as effective protection, disposable, surgical masks are mandated.  It’s been remarkable to witness how society’s priorities shift when our health is threatened.

While we all see the mask trash at our feet, what has been hidden is their other method of disposal – flushing them down like they are toilet paper – they’re not. This plastic product is now clogging our sewage systems. I have also found many reusable cloth masks littering the ground.  I guess their low cost and small size make them easy to either toss or lose as well.

It has been a shame that the mask has caused so much division. I have waited to write this as to not provide fodder for the anti – maskers. While I am not completely sold on basic surgical masks effectiveness if Covid is proven to be an air borne. I do believe they are very effective at preventing spread of the more normal respiratory illnesses like common colds and flu. Many friends' families including my own have had few winters like the last, with hardly any sniffles. In fact, I do believe one positive hold over from the pandemic would be for people to continue wearing their cloth masks indoors when they have a cold.  

This pandemic caught us off guard and our response to protect ourselves has added a whole new category of plastic to our landfills and oceans. When it is deemed, we have sufficiently protected ourselves as best we can, we need to protect the planet.  Putting its needs first, now that indeed would be a new normal.

Column by Gregory Cawsey  

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