Corona waste is harming animals, everywhere

A bat entangled in two face masks in the Netherlands; a hedgehog twisted in a glove in the UK; a penguin found with a mask in its stomach in Brazil; a checkered puffer fish that was found dead after it became tangled in a mask in Miami in the US.

Across the planet, on land and in the water, animals are ingesting “corona waste”, or becoming trapped in it, says a new research article, published this week in the journal Animal Biology.

“People may suffer from the coronavirus pandemic, but nature is getting sick of our plastic,” write the authors, biologists Auke-Florian Hiemstra from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Liselotte Rambonnet from Leiden University in the Netherlands, in their article, The Effects of Covid-19 Litter on Animal Life.

They describe how the massive use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is unleashing a wave of Covid-19 litter, which is a “new threat” to animal life. “The PPE products that are designed to keep us safe are actually harming animals around us.” 

They began their research after citizen scientists in the Netherlands encountered a dead perch — a freshwater fish — caught in a latex glove with only its tail sticking out, during a canal clean-up in Leiden. 

As far as the authors know, this was the first Dutch victim of corona waste.

The pair began their quest to obtain a global overview of the consequences of the “corona waste mountain” on animals, collecting observations from Brazil to Malaysia and from social media, local newspapers and international news websites. They found how all kinds of animals, everywhere, were affected. There were reports of apes chewing on masks, and of entangled crabs scuttling around with masks. 

Pets too, especially dogs, were found to swallow masks. “Animals become weakened due to becoming entangled, or starve due to the plastic in their stomach,” says Rambonnet in a statement.

The first reported victim of Covid-19 litter globally was an American robin, which appeared to have perished after becoming twisted in a mask in Canada in April last year.

“After that, a young gull was found walking with a mask tangled around its legs in Chelmsford, Essex, UK. It had struggled with the mask for two weeks and its limbs and joints were swollen, but it recovered in the South Essex wildlife hospital. A juvenile peregrine falcon in the Yorkshire coast, UK, with its talons entangled in a face mask, eventually managed to free itself,” the authors write.

PPE litter, the authors note, has already been found in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. “An entanglement, for example, can be acute, resulting in immediate death by suffocation or drowning, or chronic, meaning it may exhaust the animal, restrict feeding to the point of starvation or result in strangulations, wounds, infections or cause amputations.”

Masks could also be an emerging new source of microplastics.

PPE production is soaring. China, for example, increased face-mask production by 450% in just one month. “It is estimated that we have a monthly use of 129-billion face masks and 65-billion gloves globally. Similar to the usage of other single-use plastic items, this also means an increase of PPE littering our environment.”

The researchers describe how 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 citizen scientists.

“Even on the uninhabited Soko Islands, Hong Kong, already 70 discarded masks were found on just a 100m stretch of beach …. As a response to the increase of Covid-19 litter, many states in the US have raised the fines for littering PPE, sometimes up to $5 500,as in Massachusetts.”

They cite the #glovechallenge, in which people shared their observations of gloves and  masks, which resulted in more than 11 000 photos of Covid-19 litter from across the world.

A Dutch Covid-19 litter project reported 6 347 photos of gloves or masks littering the Netherlands during May and June last year.

Although the percentage of Covid-19-related litter may be small in comparison with packaging litter, it can be seen as a “typical example of our single-use society”, the article states. 

However, interactions with Covid-19 litter are not always directly negative, with birds now incorporating Covid-19 litter into their nests. “As such, we even see the symptoms of Covid-19 in animal structures,” says Hiemstra.

The pair used the accounts of photographers, litter collectors, birdwatchers, wildlife rescue centres, and veterinarians who shared the observations via social and traditional media, to compile their overview of Covid-19 littering globally. 

But to fully understand the scope of the effects of PPE litter, more research is needed.

They have started a website, covidlitter.com, in the hope this will increase people’s awareness of the danger of face masks and gloves for wildlife. 

Switching to reusables will result in a 95% reduction in waste, the authors say. “The pandemic is not over yet, and the amount of PPE used may only increase, and will continue to threaten wildlife way beyond the time access to a vaccine becomes available.” 

Cutting up disposable gloves, and snipping the straps on face masks before discarding them, can help to prevent animals from becoming entangled. The researchers, too, recommend manufacturers consider the effects of PPE litter on the environment when developing their products. 

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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