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Mask trash: Omaha nonprofit, volunteers break down environmental impact of facemasks

Published: Apr. 17, 2021 at 7:30 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - We see them everywhere and not just on our faces. Mask ditched on the ground, now in the trash.

Let’s break down some astonishing data on the environmental impact of PPE litter with the help of a Midtown resident.

Just because they are not physically here doesn’t mean the damage hasn’t already been done.

“You’re gonna start seeing them everywhere now,” said Cindy Tefft, a Keep Omaha Beautiful volunteer.

Masks tossed in parking lots and truly dumped anywhere you can think and Cindy can’t stand it.

“These masks are almost like a parachute. Once they open up, the wind carries them and then they get stuck in bushes and in trees, almost like plastic bags,” said Tefft.

She says the forgotten PPE is more than just an eyesore, it’s hazardous.

“We have no idea what types of bacteria is on the masks,” said Tefft.

These disposable face masks are not biodegradable. Instead, they’re made up of plastic polymers that Ocean Conservancy says break up into smaller pieces, spread fast, and release harmful chemicals.

“When there’s a rainstorm, it gets channeled into our stormwater system. Ultimately that makes it into our local waterways and those local waterways are connected to our river,” said Chris Stratman, Executive Director of Keep Omaha Beautiful.

It’s not only costly to our marine biology, but Cindy says many don’t realize the threat discarded masks pose to our four-legged neighbors.

“We have bunny rabbits, squirrels, and feral cats in the neighborhood and they can very easily get snagged up,” said Tefft.

It’s part of the reason you can spot Cindy on any given day, picking up hundreds of them.

The executive director of KOB says while most people aren’t littering masks, the ones who often toss them, do so out of fear.

“People are nervous. They’re scared about having this type of stuff around them after they’re done using them,” said Stratman.

Keep Omaha Beautiful says it’s unacceptable and these must go in the trash. Across the globe, 129 billion masks are used every month. That’s about 3 million a minute.

There are too many chances for them to end up in places that they shouldn’t.

“Last fall, I picked up like 35 masks within like a four-hour period along 72nd and Dodge,” said Tefft.

Every now and then, she’ll pick up trash and treasure but Cindy says the real prize is for everyone to do their part. Which is tossing old masks in the trash.

For people who are just as bothered as Cindy can get in contact with Keep Omaha Beautiful to also volunteer.

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