A face mask was swallowed by a Magellanic penguin in Brazil. In England, a hedgehog became entangled in a glove. Off the coast of France, an octopus was discovered hiding behind a mask.
Plastic contamination has been shown to have a significant impact on riverine ecosystems. Not only are there hotspots of plastic in Leiden’s canals, but there are also 22 species of fish, some of which are covered by national and European regulations. The discovery of a dead perch entrapped in a latex glove provides the first evidence that freshwater fish are being harmed by the latest surge of PPE litter.
Researchers alert in Animal Biology on March 22 that discarded single-use COVID-19 protective gear is wreaking havoc on wildlife and habitats around the world. When latex gloves and polypropylene masks used to protect people from the coronavirus are not properly disposed of, they exacerbate the plastic waste problem and destroy wildlife (SN:11/20/20). The research is the first to show how COVID-19 litter affects wildlife by entanglement, entrapment, and ingestion (SN:12/15/20).
Volunteers cleaning canals in Leiden, Netherlands, discovered a perch — a freshwater fish — trapped inside a finger of a latex glove in August 2020. The ensnared fish was the first known wildlife death in the Netherlands as a result of COVID-19 litter. Two Leiden-based biologists, Auke-Florian Hiemstra and Liselotte Rambonnet, were astounded by the discovery, and decided to learn more about the effect of COVID-19 litter on wildlife. To gather examples, they conducted a thorough search online and in newspapers.
They discovered 28 such cases from around the world, indicating a larger, global problem. The first survivor was an American robin in Canada in April 2020, which seems to have died after being entangled in a face mask. Pets are also at risk: in Philadelphia, a domestic cat ate a glove, and in Boston, a pet dog ate a face mask. “Animals with plastic in their stomachs can starve to death,” says Leiden University’s Rambonnet.
“What this paper does is give us insight into the nature of the [COVID-19] litter’s effect on biodiversity, so we can make efforts to minimize the consequences,” says Anna Schwarz, a sustainable plastics researcher at TNO, a non-profit organisation based in Utrecht, Netherlands. That could be a difficult task: According to a study released by Oceans Asia, a Hong Kong-based marine conservation organisation, 1.56 billion face masks entered the world’s oceans last year, as part of the 8 million to 12 million metric tones of plastic that enters the oceans each year.
As the long-term effects of COVID-19 litter on wildlife become clearer, Hiemstra and Rambonnet of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center are enlisting the assistance of citizen scientists to keep track of the situation: People from all over the world can upload their reports of impacted wildlife at www.covidlitter.com. To help animals avoid being entangled or stuck in single-use masks, the study authors suggest moving to reusables wherever possible, as well as cutting up disposal gloves and snipping the straps off single-use masks.
According to Schwarz, “the paper emphasizes the importance of proper waste management, especially the recycling or disposal of single-use materials.”
However, things aren’t always that dire. Some animals have snatched up discarded personal protective equipment to use for their own purposes. COVID is a virus that infects people. 19 Litter has become so common that birds have been seen using face masks and gloves as nest building materials. “Bird nests from 2020 are incredibly easy to spot,” Hiemstra says.
More than 11 000 photographs of COVID-19 litter were sent as part of the #glovechallenge, in which people shared their observations of gloves and face masks from all over the world . During the months of May and June, a Dutch COVID-19 litter project recorded 6347 images of gloves or face masks littering the Netherlands .
Initially, these items were often located near supermarkets and healthcare facilities, but when face masks became mandatory in public transportation, they began to appear more often near bus, tram, and train stations. Face masks are now required or strongly recommended in many countries . As a result, the increased production and consumption of PPE litter eventually contributes to animal interaction.
Though COVID-19-related litter is minor in comparison to packaging litter, it is representative of our single-use society. Entanglement, entrapment, and ingestion are all risks for both masks and gloves, which are some of the most serious environmental consequences of plastic contamination . Plastic may have a huge effect on animals, some of which are direct and others which are indirect. An entanglement, for example, may be acute, resulting in death by suffocation or drowning right away, or chronic, causing the animal to become exhausted, limit feeding to the point of malnutrition, or cause strangulations, wounds, infections, or amputations . Fadare & Okoffo (2020) speculate that face masks littering the atmosphere may be an emerging new source of microplastics, but the masks still cause harm before they degrade. At the start of the pandemic, Iranian cartoonist Alireza Pakdel drew a foreshadowing cartoon depicting the symptoms of COVID-19 garbage, depicting a fish entangled in a face mask facing another fish entrapped in a glove (Pakdel, 2020). Such scenarios have already been discovered in real life and are depicted here. This is the first in a series of case studies examining the growing danger of entrapment, entanglement, ingestion, and use of PPE as nesting material by birds.
While our findings may have been the first in the Netherlands, an American robin was the first COVID-19 litter survivor worldwide, to our knowledge . On the 10th of April 2020, this bird appears to have died after being entangled in a face mask in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada Then, in Chelmsford, Essex, UK, a young gull was discovered walking with a face mask tangled around its legs , It had been fighting the mask for two weeks and had swollen limbs and joints, but it was able to recover at the South Essex Wildlife Hospital. A juvenile peregrine falcon with its talons caught in a face mask on the Yorkshire coast, UK. It managed to free itself after getting its talons entangled in a face mask . Cygnets from a mute swan were seen with face masks around their beaks in Lake Bracciano, near Rome, Italy , and a mallard with a mask hanging around its neck was dubbed “The duck unable to take off the mask” by local media in Casentino, Italy .