A staggering 33,556 face masks strewn across Fife’s streets and countryside have been picked up by a group of volunteers over the past 15 months.
The startling figures have been revealed by Fife’s Street Champions group, which started to count the number of poorly-discarded face masks being recovered as part of the Marine Conservation Society’s Clean Up week in September 2020.
Since then, group members have found an average of 71 masks a day on their travels – with 51 masks alone discovered on one occasion over a short 600-metre distance from Brankholm Brae to Sainsbury’s supermarket in Rosyth.
Indeed, more than 2000 of the 33,000-plus masks were actually the reusable type – perhaps underlining the careless attitude of those responsible for the littering.
Sharon Longhurst, who volunteers with the group, described the numbers as “absolutely shocking” and said they should be a concern – not just because of the damage done to the environment and wildlife but also because of germs and the possible spread of Covid-19.
She stressed: “I wish we could save them all and photograph what that many would look like as maybe then it would make an impact.
“I think with people spending more time in their local areas due to lockdown people have been noticing the litter in general and have had the time to get involved and do something about it so we have seen the group grow hugely.
“We always find lots of face masks around supermarkets and retail outlets.
“High schools are bad too where they are chucked down when the kids come out of school, while road verges are also bad where they are tossed from car windows.
“We all see photos of birds and animals entangled in them yet people are still just chucking them down.
“We find so many in road gutters.
“Of course when it rains they get washed down the drain and then they go out to sea and endanger marine life.
“I picked one up from the beach on Sunday which the tide had brought in. It’s so sad.”
With coronavirus cases again on the rise recently, Longhurst said she hopes everyone will think twice before throwing their masks into bushes or on the ground in future.
“As you can see it’s a huge problem as this is only a tiny bit of it in Fife,” she added.
“Dogs have also been known to pick them up and swallow them and had to undergo surgery to remove them.
“I just don’t understand why people still do it.”
The most masks picked up in a single week by group members currently stands at 736, while the annual total for 2021 alone was more than 17,500.
The Fife snapshot of the problem comes just a month after researchers at the University of Portsmouth estimated there had been 91 times more litter from face masks recorded in the first seven months of the pandemic, creating plastic pollution which could last hundreds of years.
Experts there warned that face masks can act as a vector to spread Covid-19 and cause infrastructure problems such as blocking sewers.
Professor Steve Fletcher added: “Despite millions of people being told to use face masks, little guidance was given on how to dispose of them or recycle them safely. Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming.
“The majority of masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials, and if discarded can persist in the environment for decades to hundreds of years.
“This means they can have a number of impacts on the environment and people.”