Aussie “citizen scientists” on mission to unmask litter problem

Thousands of people around Australia will become “citizen scientists” this Sunday when they confront one of the most common pandemic-related litter problems, discarded face masks.

Organizers of the annual Clean Up Australia Day want the teams of volunteers to keep a tally of the old masks they find strewn in streets, waterways, parks and other public areas where trash accumulates.

The citizen scientists will have access to an online national database with their mask tally information to be shared by relevant organizations such as the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

Clean Up Australia chairwoman Pip Kiernan said the extensive COVID-19 lockdowns in recent years had not reduced the amount of litter in the environment.

“Our environmental issues have not gone away, rather they have escalated because of the mountain of rubbish we’ve created and there’s no doubt the amount of plastic waste has been surging,” Kiernan said.

“Over the past two years there have been disturbing cases of seabirds and wildlife found tangled up in carelessly discarded single-use face masks.”

Monitoring the scale of the problem is vital, Kiernan said, adding that researchers believe the plastics used in disposable masks could release chemical pollutants and nano-plastics for up to 450 years.

Kiernan said the situation underlined the need for “product stewardship” so manufacturers considered what would happen to the masks once they were thrown away.

“We need innovation in the design of PPE (personal protective equipment) so that it’s as safe as it can be but kinder on the environment,” she said.

The desire to be environmentally sensitive was instilled into Kiernan from an early age, as her late father, Ian Kiernan, founded Clean Up Australia in 1989. That movement subsequently inspired the creation of World Cleanup Day in 2018.

Over the decades the nation’s annual clean-up event has inevitably faced an array of challenges such as restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

This year, the organizers have had to contend with widespread flooding throughout much of Australia’s east coast.

Kiernan told Xinhua on Friday that the event has been postponed in those flood-ravaged regions.

“We are currently liaising with councils in these flood-affected areas offering to support their clean-up efforts when waters subside and it is safe to do so,” she said.

“The safety of our community must always be our top priority. It is important to remember that stagnant water could be contaminated, posing a health risk, while high winds always bring the danger of flying and falling debris.”