Why I’ve started documenting Yorkshire’s growing number of discarded face masks: Lorraine Behrens

Witnessing a large number of discarded face masks on her daily walks has prompted Lorraine Behrens to start a new photography project to highlight the problem. She explains why.

When the first lockdown began last March, I made my own mask out of some scraps of material loosely stitched together on a sewing machine. I ventured out into the big bad world, awaiting impressed glances from passers-by, but in half an hour I had managed to lose it, after doing the usual woman thing of juggling bags, umbrellas, stray puppies, etc, in my hands.

As a lifelong hater of litter and litter droppers, I was ashamed to have to accept that the mask must have fallen out of the pocket where I had stuffed it after leaving a shop, and was now lying on a pavement somewhere. ]

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Yet over the past few weeks, I have noticed a variety of styles and colours of masks that have either fallen out of pockets or, more likely, just been discarded by the user when worn out or unwanted.

A discarded festive face mask photographed by Lorraine Behrens

A friend commented that masks do have a tendency to fall out of a pocket when you are reaching for gloves or your phone: “I mean, Yorkshire folk wouldn’t normally waste a purposefully good mask - would they?”

It’s coming up to a year since I went for a short break in Catalonia. In early February last year, we Brits were going about our daily lives as normal, with little insight or understanding of the storm that was brewing.

On my return to Leeds, I spotted one person wearing a mask - but it was to be several months before face coverings would become as essential an everyday item as our phone and house keys. The World Health Organisation appeals for wearing a mask to be a normal part of being around other people, recommending that “the appropriate use, storage and cleaning or disposal of masks are essential to make them as effective as possible.”

Disposal, however, appears to a minority of people to mean to treat as disposable. Not content with tossing fast food packaging out of cars and crisp packets on the pavements, our streets are now dotted with discarded - or, on occasion, accidentally dropped - masks of all varieties.

Another of Lorraine's face mask photos.

Back in June last year, conservationists warned that the pandemic could spark a surge in ocean pollution, after finding disposable masks along with waterlogged latex gloves carried by wind scattered across seabeds along France’s Côte d’Azur.

Concern is growing about the number of face masks that are being improperly disposed and research conducted by clothing brand Regatta last November revealed that 90 per cent of people admit to seeing a face mask discarded in their area every week. This problem is made even worse by the fact that many of us would not feel comfortable picking a mask up on the street to put in the bin, due to fears of the threat of coronavirus contamination. The RSPCA has also highlighted the dangers the masks can pose to marine and wildlife, with birds and wild animals getting tangled up in them.

In December, as lockdown three loomed, I started taking pictures on my phone of littered and discarded masks as I ventured out on my permitted daily walk near my home. I have only been able to amass a small number of photographs but it is still shocking to see so many lying on our pavements as crumpled and worn reminders of our quotidian existence amid this pandemic.

The masks I spot on my walks consist mostly of the blue ‘NHS’ style and the nylon codpiece-shaped face coverings.

Occasionally there is a slightly more individual dropping - my favourite, if that is appropriate to say, was a red cotton mask with a cartoon image of a red-nosed reindeer. I captured this one trodden into the January snow, which added a post-festive cheer in a way. As my collection grows, maybe one day my snapshots will adorn the walls of an art gallery for a post-Covid photography show. Perhaps it could be called The Masked Slinger.

Watch this space - and wear a mask (and put it in a bin when you’ve finished with it!).