YET ANOTHER COVID-RELATED WORRY…

An entrapped perch in a PPE glove found in canals of Leiden, the Netherlands. Photo by Auke-Florian Hiemastra

I’m sorry to do this to you—I really am. Haven’t we had enough stories about being careful during this damn pandemic? But I think you’ll want to consider the implications of this one.

Several months back, I read about birds in landfills getting caught up in the ear elastic on discarded protective face masks. Since then, whenever I throw one away, I cut through the elastic on both sides.

I’ve been planning to pass on this recommendation to you, but it never fit into the topic at hand. (For the same reason, for years I’ve been cutting through the plastic rings on my almond milk containers and anything comparable, such as six-packs of beverages.)

Apparently, the Covid throwaway detritus—the single-use gloves (often latex) and face masks (usually with rubber strings and made of polypropylene, a thermoplastic fabric)—has been identified as an “emerging threat” to animals.

That’s not surprising when you consider that a 2020 study found a global monthly use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves. All that stuff has to end up somewhere.

A research article in Animal Biology,The effects of Covid-19 litter on animal life,” was published last month to start a discussion about the impact of all this Covid-19 litter, which is a problem in itself but is also adding to the larger issue of plastic pollution. The latter is another topic—perhaps for another time.

The researchers note that a number of states in the US have responded to this new problem by increasing litter fines for PPE; in Massachusetts, the fine is up to $5500.

The article reports that citizen scientists have observed animals that have ingested this litter or become entangled or entrapped in it. Some have also been found to use it as nesting material.

A table in the article cites some of the documented observations (partial list here):

—in Canada, an American robin was entangled in a face mask (the first report of an animal that apparently died from entanglement in a face mask—in British Columbia, April, 2020)

—in Poland, a sparrow was using a glove as nesting material

— In the US, a cat had ingested a glove; a checkered pufferfish became entangled in a mask

—In the Netherlands, a common coot was using a face mask as nesting material; a perch was entrapped in a glove (pictured above)

—In France, a common octopus was hiding behind a face mask (not surprising; hiding is one way octopuses, which I’ve written about with fascination, protect themselves!)

—In the UK, a gull, a peregrine, a red fox, a European hedgehog, were all entangled in the litter.

The complete table, updated, appears on www.covidlitter.com.

As the researchers point out,

“PPE has already been found in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems, affecting both vertebrates and invertebrates.”

The impact on animals can be either direct or indirect. An acute entanglement can lead to suffocation or drowning. If the effect is chronic, it can lead to exhaustion, thereby inhibiting feeding so the animal starves. Infections, wounds, amputations, and strangulations have also been observed.

They emphasize that

“the already littered items will degrade into micro- and nano plastics and stay in the environment for hundreds of years.”

The researchers stress that this research is just beginning, and they encourage people who make such sightings to report them to www.covidlitter.com.

Bird watchers, animal rescuers, nature photographers, litter pickers have been among those who have already done such reporting, and the researchers hope these people and others will continue to help them develop a greater understanding of the breadth and depth of the problem.

What else do they call for?

“Cut up disposable gloves and snip the straps on face masks.”

“A similar strategy is being used for plastic six-pack rings, which should also be cut up before being discarded to prevent entanglements.”

They also encourage PPE product developers to take this problem into account. And they report that switching from single-use products to reusables will result in a 95% reduction in waste, according to the UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub.

“To minimize the amount of COVID-19 litter and its effect on nature, we urge that, when possible, reusable alternatives are used.”

I’m convinced. The masks I’ve been wearing were supposedly just one step below the most effective, and though I reused them when I was simply out walking or not interacting with other people, now that I’m vaccinated, I’ll happily replace them with a washable fabric mask.

As the researchers conclude:

“People may suffer from the coronavirus pandemic, but nature is getting sick of our plastic.”

Your thoughts?

Annie

29 thoughts on “YET ANOTHER COVID-RELATED WORRY…

  1. Good to know Annie. Been cutting up six pack rings and other such packaging for years. Didn’t think about disposable face masks, but I’ll start. I usually wear cloth but those too will one day end in a landfill.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thank you for sharing this, Annie. I’ve got 7 masks, which I have labeled for each day of the week (but I generally don’t go out for more than a few hours, so they are not on for too long), so I can avoid tossing them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I did see a photo of a poor bird tangled up in the straps of a mask….but I wonder why people are discarding them on the ground anyway….it saddens me when we were always taught not to litter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the problem would exist to some degree even if people were simply throwing them in the garbage. There’s such a huge amount that it can’t all be contained. And plastic is sturdy.

      But it would certainly be better if people weren’t so careless. And cutting the items as recommended and trying to limit their single use would surely help.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. for years I’ve been cutting through the plastic rings on my almond milk containers and anything comparable, such as six-packs of beverages

    I’ve been doing this for years as well, after reading about burrowing animals in landfills becoming stuck or strangled in such things. I’m glad you pointed it out about mask elastic, though. I might not have thought of that.

    Is birds using gloves as nesting material necessarily bad? I assume the birds know what kind of things they want to build their nests out of. If an octopus used a glove as a hiding place, it seems like that was a positive benefit to the octopus. (Since it was a French octopus, I assume it chose a very fashionable glove for the purpose.)

    Protection against disease is a worthier endeavor than many of the other things humans do which cause pollution. Medicine in general probably generates an outsize share of garbage due to the large number of things which are used once and disposed of rather than re-used (for sanitary reasons). Still, it’s worthwhile to do what we can to minimize undesirable side effects.

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  5. The masks are easy to deal with. Most of mine are reusable. Cutting up gloves raises questions on HOW because the way they are taken off is very precise so any bacteria/virus on the glove is contained on the inside of the glove ball when taken off correctly. Thank you for helping us see this problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Like your readers, I too have been cutting up rings on things, disposing as I can in environmentally sound ways. Sometimes it all seems like too much, too hard, too late . . . but of course we all have to do what we can. So thanks, dear blogger, for providing the facts and the inspiration. So needed. And as to my Octopus Teacher, loved it. Highly recommend it if you haven’t yet seen it. Falls to us at the top of the food chain to protect our world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad to know so many people are cutting up rings on things; there are few such easy acts we can do that make at least some difference.

      And thanks, Denise, for seconding the motion for the octopus film. I’ll check it out ASAP.

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  7. Infidel, I guess I should have said, “It goes without saying that protection against disease is paramount,” but of course it is. And the need for PPE was/is critical. And yes: disposal of medical waste is a big problem that I hope some wise folks are working on. Nevertheless, we might be able to learn something from the impact of littering on the less sentient beings with which we share this earth so we do things differently: the researchers’ pleas to manufacturers to look for other approaches seems valid to me.

    The birds’ use of the litter for nesting doesn’t seem damaging at this point—unless a baby bird gets entrapped and the mother can’t chew through the string.

    As for the common octopus (a term I resent), I erred in reading the table: it was actually hiding behind a mask, a move that’s even funnier to me than if it were ensconced in an unlovely old French rubber glove. Now I must correct my error.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very important considerations indeed. I am concerned about the impact too. We’re pretty eco conscious in our household. We’ve have been recycling for many years – before it was collected. We cut ring pulls, etc. too. We’ve mostly used reusable masks. I buy cleaning products etc from the Ethical Superstore to reduce toxins and plastic waste. We’re also a mostly plant based household (I’m completely plant based). Thanks for sharing these concerns with us – they are important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Katey, I’m so pleased to welcome you—and delighted to hear that you and your family are doing such a good job in being as environmentally friendly as you can. Thanks for your comment and encouragement!
      Cheers,
      Annie

      Liked by 1 person

  9. All good points. What amazes me is that with as much environmental awareness has mushroomed in the past 50 years there is still a market for cheap plastic junk that all has to go somewhere. My city has a large scale incineration facility which solves many of the problems you mention. Trading them for others, of course. And is this where we think about the antibiotics, antidepressants and birth control drugs in our water systems? Every benefit has a cost and every solution brings new problems.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Matthew: so sorry I missed your comment on the 10th. Something is wrong with WP’s relationship with my email account that notifies me. But I thank you, as always.
    I found this item in the article I cite that may interest you: “Three months after face masks became obligatory in the UK, PPE items were found on 30% of the monitored beaches and at 69% of inland clean-ups by the citizen scientists of the Great British Beach Clean.”

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