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A Vancouver runner has picked more than 5,000 dirty masks off the streets

"We live in such a beautiful place, it sucks there's so much garbage on the ground"
David Papineau's big bag of dirty masks (about 140 of them).

David Papineau has picked up enough masks to make sure everyone at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on a sold-out night had a mask (and would have leftovers).

A regular runner, Papineau has seen the streets of Vancouver a lot; he's even run every street and laneway in the city at least once. But without his regular run group to chat with, he started to notice a lot of his surroundings, including the growing number of face masks dropped on the street.

However, it was a child who inspired him to do something about it.

"Back in March I saw a friend's seven-year-old son picking up trash on his street," he says.

He was recovering from an injury and walking instead of running and decided he'd start picking up masks himself, as they'd begun to build up in the Hillcrest area where he lived. Turning to the city's 'Adopt-a-street' program, he got geared up (with tongs, gloves and bread bags) and set to work on the new blight on his street.

"Initially when I started seeing masks I thought 'who's going to touch those,'" he says, explaining he had concerns about getting COVID-19 from a mask.

"After a while, you start to get to the point where you're comfortable with the idea of it," he adds.

There're still disgusting moments, but that hasn't stopped Papineau, who notes he has kids and has changed diapers.

And now, less than two months from his first walk when he collected 30 or 40, he's picked 5,000 up.

"I live on a short street so it didn't take long to do that," he explains. "The funny thing about cleaning up your street is you start to notice garbage on every street."

He's picked up other things, notably a lot of latex gloves, but masks are his focus and the only thing he keeps track of. This weekend he passed the 5,000 mark and kept on going. He's even kept a spreadsheet to collect the data.

"I think my highest was 260 masks on a run, and that was two fairly large bread bags," he adds.

People sometimes give him odd looks, others thank him. One man thought Papineau was running the streets of Vancouver with a rugby ball.

He's learned a few lessons, like how much heavier wet masks are and bread bags are better than grocery bags; there was an awkward incident when bags exploded over Fraser Street that really hammered that one home.

There are also some patterns. A lot of masks he finds are near parking spots in residential areas; he figures they're either dropped on purpose or by accident by drivers getting out of a car after parking at home. Certain areas are worse: alongside parks, schools, bus stops, commercial areas, and construction sites.

"A lot of times I'll run along the edge of the curb staring down into the gutter," he says, noting it really kills his pace.

Broadly he says he finds south Vancouver neighbourhoods have more, but he's not sure if that's just because there are more people wearing masks. Conversely, west Vancouver neighbourhoods have less, which may be linked to the lower density.

Some masks he's pulled off the ground have been there for months he figures, sometimes covered in dirt and leaves.

Storm drains have become a magnet for him, as they can become collection points. At the same time, it feels like he's rescuing a mask from going into the drainage system and becoming a bigger issue. Once he pulled around 30 from a drain near a grocery store on Fraser Street.

"I always feel like it's a victory when I pull a mask out of a storm drain," Papineau says.

There are a few reasons he's stuck with the self-imposed task. The obvious one is it cleans up the streets. It's also a new purpose for running, especially when he's run every street in the city.

"The pandemic has been rough and it's been a great motivation for getting going," he says, explaining that while race organizers have done what they can, it's not the same.

There are also mental health aspects, for himself and for the general public.

"Getting (masks) off the ground feels like an important step toward normal," he says. 

Even though he's collected literally thousands, he's still finding plenty.

"One of the frustrating things is seeing masks show up in areas I've already run," he says. "They're like mushrooms, they keep popping up."

His project has garnered some attention online, with people in other cities commenting they don't see the same issue. But Papineau isn't sure if it's a Vancouver issue or if Internet commenters are just oblivious to what's in their own streets.

Either way, it doesn't affect his determination to keep masks off the ground.

"We live in such a beautiful place, it sucks there's so much garbage on the ground," he says, suggesting he'd like to see others do a little each.

"If one family from every street in Vancouver adopted a block," he adds. "We'd have this place cleaned up in a weekend."