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They're Essential To Fighting The Pandemic, But Disposable Face Masks Also Pose A Threat to Alachua’s Wildlife

Disposable face masks were collected from Tumblin Creek Park in Gainesville. (Cassandra Dergins/WUFT News)
Disposable face masks were collected from Tumblin Creek Park in Gainesville. (Cassandra Dergins/WUFT News)

Last March, the world was briefly experiencing some of the cleanest water and air on record in decades.

The global lockdown at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic was giving the natural world a chance to recover.

For better or worse, that recovery period didn’t last. Last week, over three dozen disposable face masks were fished out of a creek in Gainesville.

Alachua County’s waterways are being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in their own way, as personal protective equipment finds its way into some of the county’s environmental treasure spots. Face masks, disposable gloves and single-use plastics are essentials tools in the fight against COVID-19, but they’re not always disposed of properly.

Since the start of the pandemic, the amount of litter in Gainesville has grown and evolved from red solo cups and blue and orange beads to disposable masks and rubber gloves. Personal protective equipment and single-use plastics can be found scattered throughout the city.

The disposable masks and personal protective equipment are often discarded in areas without conveniently-located trash cans, like streets and parking lots.

“The general public isn’t used to handling hazardous waste,” said Nicole Llinas, executive director of Current Problems, an environmental advocacy nonprofit group in Gainesville. Because there is not a set protocol, these items are being discarded haphazardly.

“There is a hazard with this waste, we have had to change all of our protocols to remove it. You can’t remove a mask the way you remove a water bottle,” Llinas said. “There's a heightened safety concern.”

Due to the sanitary concerns with the pandemic, there isn’t as much incentive to pick up trash as it is discovered, raising the importance for proper receptacles for disposal.

Even the trash cans that are available for use fill up quickly or lack a covering that prevents the wind from picking up lightweight garbage like face masks and gloves before truck crews can get to them.

“Just because you put something down in the parking lot doesn't mean it won't end up in our streams and waterways,” said Tom Kay, executive director of Alachua Conservation Trust.

The discarded personal protective equipment near entrances to bars and businesses make their way into storm drains that stream directly into creeks. "There is no filter," Llinas said, "so any garbage that enters the drain is not stopped from entering the creeks."

When litter gathers in waterways, it can divert the natural flow of the water. “Masks, gloves, and single-use plastics are not shaped in a way that allows them to move through the natural environment,” Llinas said. “They end up redirecting the flow of water or piling up and obstructing or plugging up outlets.”

When buildups occur, natural water systems become obstructed. The disposable face masks and personal protective equipment that doesn't end up in rivers and streams become entangled with local wildlife. “They can be wrapped around birds, fish, snakes, and cause distress and potentially death to wildlife,” Kay said.

These effects are not exclusive to Gainesville. The pollution spreads throughout Florida’s marine environments in partly due to its extensive waterway system.

“Plenty of our waterways stream directly into major bodies of water. The St. Johns River, Suwannee River and Santa Fe River all eventually flow out to the ocean,” Llinas said.

This means the debris that is building up in Gainesville is eventually going to stream into our oceans.

Most personal protective equipment is not biodegradable. Over time the materials break down into smaller microplastics and chemicals that release into the environment. Water, soil and air become contaminated with the tiny particles left behind.

Eventually, the microplastics become prevalent in food sources and organic materials. The long term effects of littering can be detrimental to the health of Gainesville’s community.

To prevent this damage, cleanups are regularly scheduled around Alachua County. Organizations like Keep Alachua County Beautiful, the Alachua Conservation Trust and Current Problems gather volunteers in these high priority areas to pick up improperly disposed garbage.

Seeing the problem first-hand highlights the importance of personal responsibility when it comes to littering. Tossing aside one face mask seems insignificant until dozens of face masks are gathered on the side of the road.

“When people volunteer, it drives the issue home,” said Gina Hawkins, executive director of Keep Alachua County Beautiful. The group schedules regular litter pickups each day.

“When people pick up litter themselves they realize the extent of the problem and are more likely to be more careful of how they dispose of things and to admonish people that don't.”

Cassandra is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.