With billions of disposable face masks being used on a monthly basis and with millions of more people donning other personal protective equipment to protect themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic, the environment has been affected in negative ways. That includes animals who have died because of PPE litter.
Birds have been entangled in disposable masks. Macaques have been seen chewing their straps. Fish and other water life have found themselves stuck in latex gloves. The PPE litter has saved human lives from the coronavirus. But it’s dealt many animals a death blow.
“As always with these single-use items, you’re not really looking after them and they end up in the environment really soon. They start becoming a real problem,” Auke-Florian Hiemstra, a biologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, Netherlands, told CNN. “ … I think it’s ironic that the materials that protect us are so harmful to the animals around us.”
Dutch researchers also found that dogs, hedgehogs, and penguins had either eaten or become caught in PPE, and some birds have used masks and gloves to help build their nests. While disposable surgical masks are mostly seen as more effective in stopping coronavirus transmission than cloth face coverings that can be reused, it’s becoming clear that the environmental impact of the former is a real problem.
In a recent study conducted by Environmental Science & Technology, it was estimated that 129 billion face masks are used monthly around the world (that’s 3 million masks per minute).
According to OceanAsia, a Hong Kong-based environmental group, more than 1.5 billion masks have made their way into the ocean. One reason why that’s so problematic is because of the plastic that makes up the face coverings.
“Single-use face masks are made from a variety of meltblown plastics and are difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination and infection. These masks enter our oceans when they are littered or otherwise improperly discarded, when waste management systems are inadequate or non-existent, or when these systems become overwhelmed due to increased volumes of waste,” the OceanAsia report stated.
And it’s not a PPE litter problem that can be solved any time in the near future.
“Even if we take steps tomorrow, then for hundreds of years there will be face masks floating around in the ocean, still impacting our wildlife,” Hiemstra said. “I’m afraid it will not stop very soon, and actually the problem will only get worse over time, sadly.”