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Saturday, April 16, 2022 Leer en Español

How Mask Mandates Make a Mess of Things—Literally

Government-driven litter can quickly become pollution.

Image Credit: Pixabay

The mask mandate for all airplanes and public transit in the US was set to expire on April 18. But on Wednesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended it for 15 days, citing an uptick in cases, especially of the “BA.2 omicron subvariant.”

“In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC order will remain in place at this time,” the agency announced in a statement.

The government wants another 15 days to assess the spread. Sounds familiar.

The expiration of the order would have been a milestone in the protracted winding down of the government-driven mask culture that has reigned supreme throughout the world since early in the pandemic. The reign of the mask has had mixed results at best, most of which were unintended adverse consequences.

Of Masks and Muck

The most visible of these consequences has been mask litter, which sharply increased during the pandemic, according to a research study published December 2021 in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“The proportion of masks in litter increased by >80-fold as a result of COVID-19 legislation, from <0.01% to >0.8%,” the study found.

We’ve all seen it: the baby blue masks on the sidewalk and in the gutter, sometimes soaked with rainwater and caked with muck. It’s a disgusting eyesore: “visual pollution” is the technical term.

And it’s not only mask litter. The study also discussed gloves and wipes. And Singapore is dealing with another visual pollutant resulting from COVID mandates: sticker litter.

In August 2021, The Straits Times reported that, to comply with government rules prohibiting unvaccinated people from dining in, food courts were checking vaccination status at the entrance and marking the vaxxed with little stickers.

This method spread throughout the island nation. But now Singapore is dealing with an unintended consequence of its vaccine rules, as The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday:

“Outside, scores of discarded badges ended up stuck to railings, walls, signs, traffic-light posts—practically any surface within arm’s reach, even plants. Some of the rules were eased recently, but the unwanted pandemic souvenirs remain.

Beyond the visual blight, the stickers leave behind a gummy, hard-to-clean residue.”

As the Journal hinted, it is ironic that Singapore is dealing with gummy gunk in public spaces resulting from a draconian order, given that decades ago it famously issued another draconian order banning chewing gum… to prevent gummy gunk in public spaces.

Not Just an Eyesore

Some may dismiss litter as a mere annoyance. But its visual pollution injects ugliness and chaos into our lives, mars the beauty and order humans naturally strive to create, and degrades our quality of life.

And litter can escalate into pollution that more directly impacts health. This is especially true for litter that accumulates on a massive scale due to sweeping government policies that impact human behavior en masse.

As the Nature Sustainability study warned:

“Littered items can be transported by weather conditions into drains and sewerage systems, creating potential blockages where they entangle with other solids (for example, leaf litter).”

Like I said, mask litter can be disgusting. And our natural disgust response is often a warning sign for unhygienic threats to our health. So it is no surprise that the study warned that litter can become “vectors for other pathogens and pollutants.”

The study lists several other negative environmental impacts, rounding out the list with microplastics:

“Chemical, physical and biological weathering will break the littered items down from macro-plastics (>5 mm) into micro-plastics (<0.5 mm) and nano-plastics (<100 nm) that have the potential to enter the lower food chain and have toxicological effects including the leaching of metals.”

Every soiled mask on the sidewalk should be a reminder that all government dictates have unintended consequences. Like debris, the adverse impacts of the COVID regime have accumulated, adding up to a mind-bogglingly immense total cost for society: in material security and prosperity, health (both physical and mental), and quality of life. It is long past time to clean up.

  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in-chief of He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including (see his author archive),,, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.