Coronavirus: Disposable facemasks are littering Auckland streets

Auckland Council contractors are picking hundreds of used facemasks off the ground every day, discarded by locals who can't be bothered putting them in a bin.

"Our contractors are picking up a couple of hundred masks a day out there in the community, in the streets and in our reserves and parks," Councillor Richard Hills, chair of the council's Environment and Climate Change Committee, told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"It's just not that sanitary obviously, or nice for them to be doing that. We're just asking people to respect our environment."

Contractors have reported a "noticeable increase" in recent weeks, finding them in parks, reserves, beaches and on the streets.

Previously a rare sight, many Kiwis have taken up wearing facemasks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, after it reemerged in the community about a month ago. 

Early in the pandemic it wasn't clear if the virus which causes the disease was airborne or not, or if people who weren't coughing and sneezing were infectious, so masks weren't considered a necessity. It's since become clear the virus can spread in the air, and people who don't even know they're infected can spread it just through talking and breathing. 

Masks have since been made mandatory on public transport, and highly recommended in public places, particularly indoors. 

As they catch particles which could be carrying the disease, having them lying about in the streets is not ideal. Hills said in this instance, people should resist the temptation to be a tidy Kiwi. 

"Our contractors are using their own PPE and keeping themselves safe. It's low risk if you do see a mask on the street, but still... [they're] full of germs, no matter what the germs are." 

Mayor Phil Goff said the risk of spreading COVID-19 wasn't the only reason to dispose of them properly.

"Used masks being thrown on the street is not only a health risk but is also terrible for our environment. Most masks are made from materials that do not easily degrade and this means they can harm wildlife. They can also leach microplastics and other chemicals into our waterways."

Richard Hills.
Richard Hills. Photo credit: The AM Show

Hills said anyone caught throwing a mask away risks a $100 fine, or $400 if they've been caught littering before.

He said if possible, invest in a reusable mask - but if you have to use disposables, that's fine, as long as you dispose of it properly - take it home, to reduce the risk of the wind blowing it out of a public rubbish bin.

"We're not going to shame anyone who's using these disposable masks - we just want people wearing masks."