NorthTec environmental tutor tracks discarded face masks

14 October 2021

NorthTec environmental tutor tracks discarded face masks

A NorthTec environmental tutor is tracking the number of disposable face masks discarded in the streets.

Dr. Manue Martinez has collected 429 masks in Whangārei over the last two weeks, of which 97% of which are the medical kind with strings attached.

The findings took place when the region moved from Alert Level 4 to Level 3, when Dr Martinez resumed her regular surveys documenting the amount of discarded litter in the environment.

She found the number of face masks littering the city had hugely increased. She said: “I realised it was much worse than the last lockdown. They seemed to be everywhere and being a scientist, I wanted to get some real data. So, Sunday September 19th, I created a simple survey for people to use easily.”

The number of masks found increased quickly, many of them with strings still intact. The disposable masks are made of plastic and eventually break down into microplastics, while the strings cause issues for wildlife, such as choking and strangulation. 

The work monitoring face masks arose via Te Tai Tokerau Debris Monitoring Project (TTTDMP). Dr Martinez co-heads the citizen-led, science-based project dedicated to measuring the extent of litter and plastic waste that makes its way into the environment around Northland. 

The project started in 2019 when Dr. Martinez and friend Nick Bamford, from Northland Regional Council, participated in a litter collection day organised by Love Whangārei Monthly Clean-Ups, and started pondering on ways to gather data and help reduce litter reaching our environment. 

Dr. Martinez said: "The scientific part of my brain said there must be some way to record the type of litter we find in different areas. That way we would have baseline data - you need data to get a good understanding of the problem before you can even start to look at solutions.” 

After discovering an app developed by the University of Georgia called ‘Marine Debris Tracker (MDT)’, Martinez’ idea came to light. “That year I was doing the paper on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), offered as part of NorthTec’s New Zealand Diploma in Environmental Management (Level 6), to update my skills. As part of my project, I trialled an app.”

She was able to adapt the MDT for TTTDMP, allowing users to track their effort and record the type, quantity, and location of litter they find. This information feeds into the TTTDMP webpage, which includes an interactive map where users can see the types of litter being found around Northland. This showed differences between the amount of litter found on the East and West coasts, and that the amount increases the closer towards the inner harbour and the city of Whangārei.

Before lockdown in August, Dr. Martinez was in conversations with the Department of Conservation (DOC) to have rangers use the app to record litter found in more remote places, as part of Conservation Week. She said: “Because the litter isn’t dropped there by people, it has made its way there through the environment – so tracking the progress of litter can give us a better understanding of the effect it’s having on te taiao (the environment).”

She also had plans to encourage Northland schools to participate in a big clean-up day and record the litter found on the school grounds. Although the lockdowns have put a halt to both collaborations, she plans to renew the initiative when it is possible.

Covid then led her to the face mask project, and she hopes that by tracking the number of masks making their way into the environment she can start igniting change. “If we had a collection point in town where people can dispose of their masks it would help. I would also encourage businesses to have their own collection point.”

Dr Martinez said that once masks are collected, they can be sent to Future Post, a New Zealand company that recycles masks and other plastics and turns them into fence posts. They have the capacity to recycle five million face masks each month.

Dr. Martinez hopes to encourage local businesses and councils to start a mask recycling initiative based on the data she and her helpers have managed to collect.

Her survey is available here.

More information on litter found in Northland.

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