Artist challenges PPE waste as many mask up again

Michelle Leone Huisman explores the environmental impacts of COVID-19 precautions


By Marilyn Reichert

Fine art photographer, Michelle Leone Huisman, is bringing the issue of mask waste front and centre through her art at a time when Vancouverites are facing a sixth wave of COVID-19.

Her artwork comes as Bonnie Henry has now repealed mask mandates indoors as of March 11, causing some ambivalence among British Columbians who have been wearing the protective barriers for the past two years. This Friday April 8, further restrictions will be lifted such as proof of vaccination and the necessity for B.C. businesses to have a COVID safety plan.

According to the World Economic Forum, during the fall of 2020 the world was using 129 billion disposable masks every month which translates to three million a minute.

Huisman questioned the mass usage of masks and its effect on the environment as she began to pick up discarded masks off the streets of her Vancouver neighbourhood in the fall of 2020.

Her estimated 2,000 masks were combined with Vancouver runner David Papineaus’s 32,000 masks he picked up in one year to produce an art exhibit called Global Pandemic, now showing at the Dal Schindell Gallery on the campus of Regent College in Vancouver.

The two pandemics

“As subsequent waves have persisted, I wanted to bring awareness to the two pandemics,” Huisman said. “COVID-19 and the insidious waste we’re producing with the masks.”

Though the amount of mask waste produced over the past two years has been substantial, COVID cases in B.C. are once again on the rise, causing locals to question whether they feel safe to stop their use of them.

“With mandatory mask regulations in many parts of the country continuing to be an important part of our efforts to flatten the curve, how we use and dispose of this piece of personal protective equipment has many consequences for society today, tomorrow and well into the future,” Huisman says on her website.

On March 21, the seven-day average in COVID cases was at 194 in B.C. By April 3, the average had risen to 240 cases.

“I’ve paired the masks with nature because it’s affecting our environment and then I’ve taken it one step further and added children’s nursery rhymes and poems,” Huisman said. “Play is the universal language of childhood. This is where we learn to cope, to give and take.”

Environmental waste vs. personal safety

Alan Tin, who works with University Endowment Lands, came into the gallery on his lunch break to view the display.

“I think face masks does both things psychologically and physically,” Tin said. “It depends on what kind of germs are flying around.”

Abigail Boggs, curator and arts administrator at Regent College was listening to On the Coast on the CBC radio when she heard marathon runner David Papineau’s interview.

“I was really interested when he said ‘I have thousands of masks I’ve collected’,” Boggs said.

Boggs said that she was intrigued when she heard that Papineau was sending them to Michelle Leone Huisman to be photographed. It gave her the idea to bring the display to the gallery she curates at Regent College.

“The whole mandate of our galleries is to spark conversations around topics,” Boggs said. “This one, with storytelling about environmentalism leads to the big question of what’s going to happen to this waste?”

Although the past two years has witnessed a lot of waste created as a result of the pandemic, some still feel conflicted as to whether they should mask-up or finally do away with the protective gear.

Paulo Pina, a student at Regent College in his fifth year of a master’s in theology, reflects on his comfort level surrounding masks.

“For me it’s more about psychological protection,” said Pina, who has received two vaccines. “I feel safer. I don’t know if they really make me safer, more protected, but I feel more protected.

“Right now, I am not using because I had COVID like one month and ahead or month and a half ago.”

Ross Hastings, a professor of theology at Regent College, showed some uncertainty about continuing to wear masks.

“I have not been following the rising COVID numbers lately,” Hastings said. “I thought we were doing ok, so I have abandoned my mask pretty much, except maybe on the bus.”

Currently, the fully vaccinated rate in B.C. stands at 82.1% which has made many feel comfortable to not use them.




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