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.”