'Something like I've never seen before': Who has to pick up those dirty, discarded pandemic masks?

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- One thing we all know from wearing masks for more than a year now is that they can get dirty quick. So we wash the cloth ones and throw away the disposable ones.

But not everyone puts used masks in the trash where they belong.

Downtown Raleigh resident Drew Welch says he sees too many masks that have become litter.

"I do see quite a bit of the disposable masks laying around on the street corners, you know, and the walkways," said Welch.

And they're not just on the street corners and the sidewalks.

They're at the bus stop and in the parking lots at strip malls, in front of the grocery and big box stores.

And to Welch, it's the nastiest of nasty litter.

"Not only is it not mindful it's also kind of a public health risk," said Welch. "You don't know what kind of lies within those masks. You don't know who has to pick those up, how they come into contact with that."

ABC11 found out '"who has to pick those up".

It's people like City of Raleigh maintenance worker David Richardson. He called the discarded masks "something like I've never seen before."

And that's saying a lot because Richardson has seen some nasty trash after years of trying to keep downtown Raleigh clean.

While there are a few other items that germ-wise might compare to discarded masks, they certainly aren't as common. And there's data to back that up.

During the pandemic, the Ocean Conservancy, a group that monitors plastics in oceans around the world, surveyed those who took part in the organization's International Coastal Cleanup.

When asked how often they saw PPE or personal protective equipment litter in their community, 51% responded that they saw it on a daily basis.

When asked about the most common type of PPE, 81% answered face masks.

That's similar to Richardson's experience in downtown Raleigh.

"We do see slight increase in trash, but it's more of a mask pickup," he said.

And for Richardson and his team, the entertainment areas after a weekend are the worst.

"Like Glenwood South, Warehouse District, wherever there's an eatery, wherever there's a bar, there's an increase in masks," he said.

It's surprising for those who use garbage cans to safely dispose of masks. And in downtown Raleigh, garbage are almost everywhere you look.

"It does drive me crazy," said Welch.

So the next time you start to throw your dirty mask or any other littler on the ground just remember, whether it's Richardson and his team members or private crews hired to clean up big box parking lots, you're forcing someone to do something you wouldn't want to do.
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