Face mask litter on rise, Surfrider says

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Andy Alboroto of Paradise Grounds Care with Bruce Laymon finds a discarded face mask during the group’s weekly beach cleanup last Sunday at the Nukoli‘i Beach.

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    A discarded face mask litters the parking area at the Ahukini State Recreational Pier.

LIHU‘E — A growing number of face masks are littering Kaua‘i, leading to pollution of island waters, according to a local nonprofit.

“Because of the explosive resurgence of both tourism and COVID-19 in Hawai‘i, we are seeing way too many masks discarded in parking lots, on the bike path, along trails and on the shoreline,” Carl Berg, senior scientist for the Kaua‘i Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, told The Garden Island in an email.

Surfrider has renewed its COVID-19 PPE Awareness Campaign in response to the uptick in medical litter. The group urges residents and visitors to properly dispose of single-use personal protective equipment in trash cans, or make the switch to reusable PPE, like cloth masks.

“The important point of our PPE campaign is not how many masks are out there, or how dangerous it is to marine life, but that locals and tourists alike should not discard them and pick them up,” Berg wrote. “We want to be pro-active.”

Barbara Wiedner, co-head of Surfrider’s beach-cleanup program, is confident masks discarded on dry land are becoming marine debris.

“For a while, we weren’t seeing them in the water. That has shifted,” she said.

Wiedner reports seeing an ‘iwa returning from the ocean with a mask in its bill at Kahili Beach (Rock Quarry Beach, Kilauea) and finding PPE on a rocky coastline unfrequented by humans. A colleague has seen a mask floating in the water, according to Wiedner.

Wiedner believes the littering is mostly unintentional.

“The masks are being dropped by our visitors and by our residents. Typically, they don’t mean to litter,” she said. “It’s just so easy to drop a mask when they were on your lap when you got out of your car, or it was in your pocket and fell out — and then it’s blowing into the ocean.”

Improperly discarded PPE may carry viruses and pathogens that could potentially spread infection, according to a Surfrider press release, which said it can also be mistaken for food by seabirds, turtles and marine mammals, putting them at risk of injury and death.

Josh Childress, a manager at Seasport Divers, reported he has “not really” seen any medical debris at Kaua‘i dive sites, but it’s a real problem closer to shore.

“What we have seen is at Koloa Landing more than anywhere else,” he explained. “All of the litter, the trash, the garbage and stuff like that flows from Waikomo Stream down into Koloa Landing.”

Childress added he picks up masks in the Koloa Landing parking lot on a regular basis.

“I don’t understand how people are just dropping those all over the place, but it is something that we’ve all seen, for sure,” he said.

Surfrider is asking residents to share their litter findings using the hashtag #HawaiiPPEdebris on social media.

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Scott Yunker, general assignment reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or syunker@thegardenisland.com.

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