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Are Masks ‘The New Plastic Bags?’ Ocean County Advises Caution on Outdoor Disposal

A face mask against a piling at a local marina. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

A face mask against a piling at a local marina. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Ocean County officials say they are worried by data that shows disposable face masks being used as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic are becoming a danger to the Shore environment.

“I am receiving a steady stream of reports that disposable face masks are turning up on beaches and the coastline all over Ocean County,” County Commission Joseph Vicari said. “I ask everyone to please dispose of your face masks properly and do not toss them on the ground.”

The masks are joining a long list of plastics, including bags and bottles, which wash into storm drains and end up in the bay. Clean Ocean Action, the organization which organizes beach sweeps up and down the New Jersey coast, reported last week that it collected more than 1,000 pandemic-related items, including face masks, during its local beach cleaning last fall.

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“This problem can be easily controlled if people will simply place their used masks into the trash,” Vicari said.

The nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, which monitors water and beach pollution around the globe, said its members have found the number of disposable face masks washing ashore is increasing.

From July through December of 2020, Ocean Conservancy reported more than 107,219 pieces of pandemic-related items were removed from the ocean and beaches. Masks constituted the overwhelming majority of the items found. Vicari said there have also been reports of seabirds and other wildlife becoming entangled in the elastic bands of face masks. Larger sea creatures have been observed attempting to eat the masks as food.

The issue has led the county to suggest residents and visitors use cloth masks this summer.

“With the summer tourism season fast approaching, we must all do our best to protect our environment and our wildlife,” Commissioner Gary Quinn said. “Let us all work together to keep our beaches and our waterways clean and safe for everyone.”

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