Montreal 'masketeers' find sense of purpose cleaning up PPE littering Villeray streets

Two Montreal friends who call themselves the 'Mask Militia,' say it's therapeutic to clean up all the surgical masks left on the streets of their borough, but they would rather find a way to recycle them.

The 'Mask Militia' is calling on Montreal to find ways to recycle disposable masks

Elizabeth Barbosa, left, and Alcina Lopes have been friends for more than 40 years. They have been taking advantage of their weekly walks to clean the streets of Villeray of used surgical masks. (Submitted by Elizabeth Barbosa)

When the pandemic started, two long-time friends found a way to connect: Elizabeth Barbosa would meet up with Alcina Lopes a few times a week to go on a walk and vent about the difficult year they were having.

Until one day, Barbosa decided she had had enough of complaining and wanted to channel her energy into something more productive. 

"I said, 'hey, how about we pick up these masks instead of always complaining about them?'" said Barbosa. 

"So, we took a stick — literally a stick from a tree — and we just started putting them in bags." 

Barbosa got the idea to pick up masks in her borough of Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension back in December, after hearing about Jody Aveline, who had been picking them up on his bike, riding across the city. 

When Elizabeth Barbosa and Alcina Lopes first started picking up masks in their neighborhood, they used a stick they got from a tree. (Submitted by Elizabeth Barbosa)

"We do pretty much all of Villeray, Park Extension, Saint-Michel," said Lopes. "Now …we decided to go further out. We've been beyond Pie-IX, St-Michel, north, south — we really did the whole borough."

The pair has since upgraded to proper garbage pickup sticks and has so far collected more than 3,500 surgical masks and about 200 gloves in their area.

"It solidified our friendship, obviously. I mean we've known each other for over 40 years and it's just very therapeutic, I find, for us. We're out, we laugh, we talk to other people. It's fantastic," said Lopes. 

Barbosa says the feedback they've gotten from neighbours has been positive for the most part. Borough Mayor Giuliana Fumagalli has also been supportive of the duo. 

The women recently developed a social media presence with an Instagram page, dubbed "Mask Militia," where they encourage others to join in the effort. They are also calling for better ways to recycle the masks.

So far, they've managed to get at least one other person — a new masketeer as they call him — on board.

Up until now, Barbosa and Lopes have been disposing of the masks in the garbage, unable to find a safe and reliable way to recycle them.

"This is what I feel preoccupied about, because we are basically displacing a problem that's on our streets into our landfills," said Barbosa. 

But this week, Barbosa and Lopes hope to start recycling the masks with a box that was donated to them by Go Zero Recycle — a company based out of Magog, Que. that recycles face masks. 

Barbosa is calling on boroughs across the city to purchase similar boxes with the hope that fewer masks will end up in landfills.

In a statement to CBC's Let's Go last month, a spokesperson for the City of Montreal said the city's waste management team has looked into the most efficient ways of disposing of personal protective equipment. 

The city recommends throwing the masks out in the closest available garbage, or disposing of them at home. 

"By taking this precaution and not leaving PPE in public roads, this prevents the plastic pollution in oceans and green spaces," the city says in an email. "They should not, under any circumstance, be disposed of in the city's recycling bins or compost bins, nor in the toilet."

"I think that we all have the power to change things, and I think that if we all create this movement and we start doing this in our respective boroughs, I think we're going to send a powerful message to the city and to officials," said Barbosa. 

With files from CBC's Let's Go

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