Who has to pick up those dirty discarded pandemic masks?

One thing we all know from wearing masks for more than a year now is that they can get dirty quick.

Video Transcript

ED CRUMP: One thing we've learned from wearing masks more than a year now, they get dirty fast. So we wash the cloth ones and throw away the disposable ones. But not everyone puts those used masks in the trash where they belong.

DREW WELCH: I do see quite a bit of the disposable masks laying around on the street corners and the walkways, etc.

ED CRUMP: Downtown Raleigh resident Drew Welch, like a lot of us, can't avoid seeing mask litter because it's everywhere. Not just on street corners, at the curb, on the sidewalk, at the bus stop, but also in the parking lots at all the strip malls, in front of the grocery and big box stores. And to Welch, it's the nastiest of nasty litter.

DREW WELCH: Not only is it not mindful, it's also kind of a public health risk. 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.

ED CRUMP: We found out who has to pick those up. It's people like City of Raleigh maintenance worker David Richardson.

DAVID RICHARDSON: Something like I've never seen before.

ED CRUMP: As you can imagine, Richardson and his colleagues have seen some nasty trash after years of trying to keep downtown Raleigh clean. And 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, 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 litter in their community, 51% said daily. And when asked about the most common type of PPE, 81% answered face masks.

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

DAVID RICHARDSON: We do see slight increase in trash, but it's more of a mask pickup.

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

DAVID RICHARDSON: Like Glenwood South, Warehouse District. Wherever there's an eatery, wherever there's a bar, there's an increase in masks.

ED CRUMP: It's frustrating for those of us who use garbage cans to safely dispose of masks-- garbage cans that are everywhere you look in downtown Raleigh.

DREW WELCH: It does drive me crazy.

ED CRUMP: So the next time you start to throw your dirty mask or any other litter 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 would never want to do.

Ed Crump, ABC11 Eyewitness News.