When Masks Become Trash

Look around and you’ll start to notice America’s discarded face coverings everywhere
Murray Park neighborhood of Larkspur, Calif.

I first started noticing them in December during one of the many walks, hikes and bike rides that became part of my routine during the pandemic: Sad little face masks that once served as the last wall of defense against unwanted germs were now unceremoniously tossed to the side. I saw this new trash on sidewalks, in the streets, on hiking trails, in parks and on the beach. There was even one hanging from a tree branch — I assume placed there so the owner could recover the lost item if retracing his or her steps?

Using my iPhone and Hipstamatic app filters — which transform otherwise simple images into textured pieces of art — I began a pandemic project of documenting each one I found along the way. I’ve always had a habit of looking down when I walk, a result of too many awkward missteps and turned ankles, so spotting the littered masks was easy. (Usually this habit leads me to find money: a $50 bill once when crossing at 13th and H streets in Northwest D.C., and a $100 bill outside my favorite coffee shop in Seattle.)

Funston Beach in San Francisco.
Marin Headlands in Sausalito, Calif.
Kentfield, Calif.
Greenbrae, Calif.

I live in Northern California, where temperatures are pretty mild most of the year, so I managed to log quite a few miles while hiking trails and roads during the pandemic. I took photos of masks around the Bay Area — at Funston Beach in San Francisco, in Marin County from Larkspur up to Novato — but also during a trip to Newport Beach in Southern California.

I photographed each mask as I found it, never moving one to make it look more interesting. I wanted to document them in the natural state in which they were dropped or discarded. I have crouched down in the middle of streets and on sidewalks, getting odd and inquisitive looks from passersby. My hiking partners have waited for me on the trail as I worked on the perfect angle, twisting my body to get wildflowers or grass in the frame. I’ve gotten the exasperated eye roll from my teenage daughter as I stopped in the grocery store parking lot, delighted to find yet more PPE and embarrassing her because I do indeed look strange.

Indian Valley Preserve in Novato, Calif.
Marin Headlands in Sausalito.
Sidewalk in Larkspur.
Street in Kentfield.

I can’t help but wonder if this new trash will become an environmental issue. Will seagulls and turtles get tangled in the face mask loops? Will landfills overflow with millions of used masks? Will they eventually be banned on environmental grounds, as plastic bags have been in some communities?

In the meantime, the masks keep accumulating. As I was writing this, I took a break and walked to my local grocery store. In the 45-minute trek, I found four discarded face masks — and added photos of them to my growing gallery.

Balboa Island in Newport Beach, Calif.

Barbara Kinney is senior photo editor and photographer for Emerson Collective. She was a White House photographer during the Clinton administration and was Hillary Clinton’s campaign photographer in 2008 and 2016. Her book “#StillWithHer: Hillary Clinton and the Moments That Sparked a Movement” documents Clinton’s run for president in 2016.

Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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