This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Environmental Institute.
One of the most distinguishing features of the COVID-19 era is the public daily use of personal protective equipment (PPE), primarily in the form of single-use face masks and latex gloves. And while these thin layers protect us and others from transmitting and contracting SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes lower respiratory tract disease, scientists are now beginning to understand how damaging these objects can be to ecosystems and wildlife.
The demand for PPE has put some countries on a military base, to give governments extensive wartime authorities to control the economy and force private companies to join national battles against the pandemic. “Our national plan launches a full-scale wartime effort to address the scarce supply by expanding production and protective equipment, syringes, needles, you name it,” President Joe Biden said in January. Even the inventor of the life-saving N95 mask favored by front-line medical workers, Dr. Peter Tsai, said countries should provide EPP as if they were at war. “Weapons don’t benefit,” he said in August. “But they need to have the weapons and then they don’t use them for 10 or 20 years. You need to see such PPE as military weapons. A majority of U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have set up “male warrants” requiring people to wear face masks in public to limit the spread of COVID-19.
But while these “weapons” fighting coronavirus have proven to be life-saving for humans, a growing number of nonhuman animals find them a completely new, and often deadly, threat that has suddenly scattered their natural habitat. One major problem is that face masks and latex gloves are disposable, and people often don’t remove them properly. How many times have you seen a used mask or glove lying on the street or fixed in a bush or floating in a waterway? Welcome to the new world pollution problem. (As if the scourge of plastic waste would not be enough for the global ecosystem.)
According to the World Health Organization, the fabric masks that should be used to fight the pandemic are made of three layers of fabric: an inner layer of absorbent material such as cotton, a middle layer of non-woven non-absorbent material, such as polypropylene, which is a kind of plastic, and an outer layer of non-absorbent material, such as polyester. This means that these masks, if improperly discarded, have the power to threaten ecosystems for many decades, even centuries. Polypropylene takes 20 to 30 years to rot in a landfill. A police chief can last up to 200 years. Researchers at the University College London Plastic Waste Innovation Hub recently published a report that estimated that around 70,000 tonnes of plastic waste would be produced if all Britons wore a single-use mask every day for a year.
In August 2020, during a cleaning project at a canal in the Dutch city of Leiden, scientists discovered a fish trapped in a latex glove, a finding that prompted them to investigate whether this problem was more widespread. Their fears soon came true: After just a few months, researchers found hundreds of face masks over the city’s historic canals. Their findings were published in a March report published in the journal Animal Biology on the impact PPE waste has on wildlife. The sad conclusion: All those face masks and latex gloves kill birds, fish and other animals all over the world. The researchers, from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Institute of Biology at Leiden University, and the Institute for Water and Wetland Research, all based in the Netherlands, said animals are involved in the gear, while others, confusing it with food, dies from fatally ingesting it. Some animals build homes with it.
“As always with these disposable things, you don’t really care about them and they soon get into the environment. They are becoming a real problem, “Auke-Florian Hiemstra, a biologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden and co-author of the report, told CNN.” I think it’s ironic that the materials that protect us are so harmful to animals. around us, “he added.
The scientists included specific examples in their study, such as a mortuary (Perca fluviatilis) trapped in a latex glove “with only its tail protruding” in the Netherlands; common coot (Fulica atra) build a nest with a face mask, also in the Netherlands; American robin (Turdus migratorius) involved in a face mask in British Columbia; juvenile peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) whose claws got stuck in a face mask in Yorkshire; dumb swans (Swan smell) with face masks wrapped around his beaks in Lake Bracciano, near Rome, Italy; and red fox (Vulpes vulpes), involved in a face mask, and a European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), involved in glove, both in Britain. Even stray dogs have been found with EPP in the stomach. The list goes on and unfortunately goes on: Hiemstra warned that the entire animal kingdom may be affected by the human carrier COVID-19.
“It makes sense to report birds – they are visible, and a lot of people look at them,” said Greg Pauly, a herpetologist and co-director of the City Natural Research Center at the Los Natural History Museum. Angeles County, which suspects a lot of wild animals ingest PPE waste – a major problem whose impact we will soon not fully understand. “Consumption is not something you can easily see, and almost no one is looking at it,” he said, recommending that natural biologists do more autopsies of animals across all species to collect data for future studies.
More than 30 years ago, Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit environmental group based in Washington, DC, launched the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), a global waste disposal measure designed to dispose of ocean waste, primarily in the form of plastic waste. Every year volunteers from states and territories across the United States and more than 100 countries around the world gather to participate in a local cleanup event. The COVID-19 pandemic broadened the tasks of the event: In July 2020, Ocean Conservancy added a new category of garbage to Clean Swell, the mobile app that volunteers use to record their cleanup work: “PPE”.
In March, the group released a report on the growing threat of PPE pollution and found that based on a survey of ICC volunteers and coordinators conducted in early 2021, 94 percent of respondents observed PPE pollution at cleanup in 2020, during which more more than 100,000 pieces of EPP – mainly masks and gloves – have been collected on beaches across 70 countries. More than half of the survey respondents said they see PPE throwing up their home communities on a daily basis.
What can we do? “We really encourage people to wear reusable face masks,” Liselotte Rambonnet, a biologist at the Institute of Biology at Leiden University and co-author of the Animal Biology report, told CNN. “All the interactions we found were with single-use face masks because they are inexpensive and can be lost more easily,” she added. Unfortunately, single-use PPE cannot be recycled, so they have to go into the ordinary bin. In doing so, make sure that all contaminated EPPs are disposed of in a covered bin covered with a garbage bag and that they are always out of the reach of children and pets. In no case do you just have to throw your used EPP on the street or in a waterway.
In addition, it is important to cut the two ear straps on either side of your mask before removing it to reduce the chance of animals getting involved in it. And let’s take the opportunity to look at the complete picture: How all our medical and plastic waste affects the natural world and what we can do to reduce this global pollution crisis.
“As we protect our communities and each other from this invisible threat, we can also do more to protect our communities and our ocean from the effects of the pandemic,” writes Janis Searles Jones, CEO of Ocean Conservancy. “Once the need for EPP decreases as the pandemic decreases, we have a real opportunity to reduce our overall plastic footprint and ensure that the plastics we use are recyclable, made from recycled content, and stay out of the ocean and our environment. “But even if we change our behavior now when it comes to removing PPE, it may be too late. According to a report by OceansAsia, a Hong Kong-based marine conservation group, about 1.56 billion face masks entered the ocean in 2020 alone.” Even if we take steps tomorrow, then for hundreds of years there will be face masks floating around in the ocean that still affect our animal, “Hiemstra said.” I’m afraid it won’t stop very soon, and indeed the problem will only get worse with the time, unfortunately. “