A COVID lockdown side effect: Used masks polluting California coastal waters


TIBURON, Calif. – The pale blue is easy to spot among the dry-brown reeds.

People walk here along the northern coast of the San Francisco Bay, crowding a path that bends to the contour of the shore. At the small pebble beach near a park called Blackies Pasture, a surgical mask is tangled in the marsh at the edge of the Bay. A little farther on is another, then another on the other side of the path, waiting to be blown into the sea.

“I mean this is a high-wealth area and even here you see it,” said Peter Ottesen, a fit 74-year-old tossing the ball to his black lab, Addie, on a recent clear morning. “It’s now like cigarette butts or anything else. You see it on the sides of the path, the sides of the road, and if you don’t see it, you are not looking.”

There is the economic crash, the education gap, the depression of solitary life. Now another unwelcome and potentially enduring side effect of the coronavirus pandemic has emerged: the masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes and other items of “personal protective equipment” meant to save lives are also polluting the environment.

Since the pandemic began early this year, masks have become a go-to item of the national wardrobe, especially here along the California coast where mask-wearing rates are high. But many are careless with the new accessory and, in windy places like many along this state’s 840-mile coast, the masks and other products are ending up on sidewalks, skittering into storm drains, blowing onto beaches and ending up in the Pacific Ocean and its bays.

And this is before the state’s traditional rainy season, which washes urban flotsam and jetsam into the sea. It is due to begin this month.

Many types of masks, including the most common surgical variety, contain plastics that taint ocean ecosystems and disrupt marine food chains. The bottom line is that, in the era of covid-19, another form of mass-produced human stuff is making its way into places where humans do not live.

“Whatever the product may be this is a new, additional plastic threat,” said Adam Ratner, associate director of the conservation education program at the Marine Mammal Center based in the Marin headlands, which rescues and heals seals, sea lions, otters and other animals along a 600-mile stretch of California coast.