How many times in the last year have you looked down, only to notice a dirty, disposable mask dropped or discarded on the ground?
If the sight has left you feeling a pang of chagrin every time (especially since the idea of picking up used masks with a bare hand isn't exactly appealing during a pandemic), know you're not alone.
It's this exact feeling that prompted Grade 10 student Emily Brook to tackle the issues surrounding this particular form of litter for her personal project at St. John's School this year.
As part of the assignment, students were tasked with selecting a format and topic of their choosing. "It's basically supposed to be apart from academics," Brook explained. "I wanted to do something along the lines of graphic design or art."
She continued. "I've always been very interested in the environment, and I noticed that a lot of masks were on the ground and I was kind of disappointed. And I know that some people at my school wear, like, two or three masks a day, or, like, two on top of another, and it really bothered me, so I wanted to express that through art, and try and raise awareness about this."
So, starting in November, she set to work digitally illustrating the effects these discarded masks can have on our environment and the living beings we share it with. She came up with a series of simple but striking images, some of which show sea creatures floating alongside the disposable masks.
Her aim? To encourage her classmates to choose reusable masks that won't eventually wind up in a landfill or waterway after a single day of wear, and educate them about the potential consequences of their decision if they don't.
She also created a short video explaining the reasons behind her campaign.
Aside from a digital exhibition, "We only got to present it to the grade below us, instead of the whole school as usual," Brook explained. Despite the initially limited audience, Brook said the timely topic appeared to resonate with a decent proportion of her fellow students and their parents. "They filled out a survey that I have, and a lot of people [said they] learned a lot of stuff and they said that they would try to not wear disposable masks as much," she explained.
During her own research, Brook learned not only that the polypropylene masks take around 449 years to decompose, but that the attached ear loops create a hazard for wild animals that can get caught or injured by the thin straps.
"I learned that it's very helpful if you cut off the straps before you throw it away, if you want to wear it," she advised.
Her plan was to take the 50 posters she printed on her own accord, and paper them around her neighbourhood. But since "it's kind of a territorial thing, I guess, in Vancouver because a lot of people want to be putting up posters," Brook said she first contacted local printing business The Poster Guy for permission to do so.
"His company liked the idea so they offered to print 500, I think, more and then put up the ones that I already printed out for me," she explained.
Thanks to that kind gesture, Vancouverites can now spot hundreds of Brook's posters displayed throughout the city, mostly around Main, Broadway and Commercial.
"I really hope if anyone sees [the posters], that they kind of think twice about why they're wearing [a disposable mask] and maybe put in a little more research ... and try to look at the impact," said Brook.
Choosing a reusable mask "is a small thing that we can do right now to stay safe at the same time as protecting our environment."