"We have to rethink how we contain waste."
Canadian researchers have unmasked where a bulk of disposable face coverings, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) used during the pandemic have ended up, and it's heartbreaking.
Environmental scientists at Dalhousie University conducted a study, tracking social media posts of wildlife around the world encountering discarded COVID-19 gear. After doomscrolling for over a year, they found more than a hundred animals wrapped in mask ear bands, dredging up medical debris from waterways and incorporating the waste into their nests.
"Masks are a booby trap for any animal. If a bird lands on one, its legs are going to get tangled. Oftentimes their wings won't be impacted, so they fly away and problems persist," plastic pollution researcher and project lead Justine Ammendolia told MTL Blog.
An American robin wrapped in a face mask held by someone in Ontario. Right: A great blue heron pulling a fabric mask out of water in the U.S..Jake Kenney, Jim McManus | Courtesy of Justine Ammendolia.
The research stemmed from a pandemic lockdown in Toronto, when Ammendolia and her partner volunteered to clean up used PPE from the street and noticed animals grabbing masks from the trash. They started seeing similar images from other countries on Instagram and Facebook and collected the data.
"The photographers we found were mostly citizen scientists — ordinary folks like your neighbours or your parents, who were posting pictures online of what they observed in their backyards during lockdowns. They're people who were genuinely concerned about seeing garbage from the pandemic impacting wildlife," said Ammendolia.
"One person biked two hours just to go home and get his camera to document what he'd seen because he was so bothered by it. There are always people who really care about these issues and we got to highlight that positive side of humanity."
Most photos came from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. but some were as far-reaching as Singapore and Australia.
A Eurasian oystercatcher picks a dirty mask out of the water. Right: A European hedgehog wrapped in a mask.Dirk Blondeel, Ria Witkamp | Courtesy of Justine Ammendolia.
Sightings of interactions between wildlife and pandemic-related items spanned 23 countries and consisted mostly of entanglements (42%) and nest incorporations (40%).
Most recorded incidents involved birds (83%). Mammals (11%), invertebrates (4%), fish (2%), and sea turtles (0.9%) were documented least.
Any interactions between wildlife and PPE can be fatal or reduce an animal's quality of life, said Ammendolia.
Consumption of microplastics from decomposing masks, for instance, can lead to an animal's reduced intake of nutrients and even altered blood chemistry. Elastics wrapped around necks can lead to constricted feeding.
The species most commonly impacted by masks were mute swans and herring gulls, although the eastern gray squirrel made up the highest number of impacted mammal sightings in southeastern Canada, along with hedgehogs and red foxes.
A serotine bat wrapped in two masks on a pavement in the Netherlands. Right: A common coot mama bird perches over her little one surrounded by trash and disposable masks.Mirjam van Otterlo, Declan Friel | Courtesy of Justine Ammendolia.
Ammendolia and her team found aquatic environments were particularly susceptible to accumulating pandemic-related debris. In 2020 alone, around 1.56 billion facemasks entered oceans, according to the study.
Waterlogged masks are especially dangerous to wildlife because they can colonize microorganisms that lead to the proliferation of invasive species.
Among the more haunting photos from the study are baby birds interacting with medical waste, either in waterways or nests.
A mute swan and chicks on water in Italy near a floating face mask.Paolo Nicolai | Courtesy of Justine Ammendolia.
The most frequently observed types of pandemic-related litter in the study were facemasks. Most were disposable (88%), while reusable masks were seen in nests and waterways at a much lower rate (7%) along with respirators (3%).
"We know PPE gets into the environment, but I don't think anyone fully understands the extent of the harm caused. Without funding for scientists to perform autopsies, we have no idea how much of the plastic animals are consuming," said Ammendolia.
A red kite nest in Germany has an N95 mask hooked on the side. Right: Red kite chicks huddle behind a printed fabric mask, as someone reaches up to remove it.Martin Kolbe | Courtesy of Justine Ammendolia.
The fates of most animals documented in the study remain unknown (66%). Just over 10% of spotted animals figured out how to disentangle from pandemic-related litter, while humans intervened to help around 15% of the time.
Sadly, 8% of animals were found dead in direct contact with PPE items.
A razorbill wrapped in a mask on a beach in Scotland. Right: A mute swan wanders an Irish beach with a mask around its neck.Trish Loli Brewster, Anne Marie Byrne | Courtesy of Justine Ammendolia.
Documenting these realities is important, said Ammendolia. Without people taking and posting photos of what they saw during lockdowns, there might not have been such a clear record of how animals were so immediately impacted.
"I don't think a lot of people look at a mask and think it could be the difference between life and death for smaller species," she said.
Online and social media platforms have become a valuable way for scientists to collect data and track rapidly emerging environmental challenges.
An osprey in flight with a mask clutched in its talons, spotted in the U.S. Right: A mallard with a mask around its neck.Monica Hawse, Mary Caporal Prior | Courtesy of Justine Ammendolia.
"Before the pandemic, it was uncommon to see disposable masks used as frequently in North America and Europe as in Asia, so the waste management infrastructure wasn't there. We were totally unprepared for what happens when an airborne virus comes into our life," said Ammendolia.
Misinformation at the onset of the pandemic led people to try to recycle masks because they thought they were made of paper, she said. Not only that, but public garbage cans are often designed to either have an open top, so stuff can fall out and be accessible to animals, or they're so sealed that you have to push your hand through to properly dispose of a mask. Neither option is ideal.
"The sheer volume of PPE being used at the onset of the pandemic meant you'd go to the supermarket in Toronto, Montreal, or other major cities and be hard-pressed not to find medical litter in the parking lot. So many people would improperly discard it or it would fall on the ground," she said.
"There was also that 'ick' factor associated with PPE. Like, ew, you dropped a dirty mask on the floor? There's the belief that it could be contaminated with the virus, so who would want to pick that up?"
A black bittern seen in Singapore with a mask tightly wrapped around its bill. Right: A silver gull in Australia tries to flick a disposable mask off its leg.Adrian Silas Tay, Sheree Marris | Courtesy of Justine Ammendolia.
So what can people who are discouraged by the photos do? Is it time to start cutting up used PPE the same way you're supposed to cut six-pack packaging?
"Cutting the loops helps in terms of preventing entanglements but then it poses a different issue because an elastic band looks a lot like a worm. Making plastics smaller is just a temporary fix," said Ammendolia.
"If we're going to stick with disposable mask culture — which looks like it is we're going have to do since COVID isn't over — you have to make sure that your PPE is properly bagged when you throw it away. Putting a mask in an open-face garbage can means squirrels, raccoons and gulls can get it. We have to rethink how we contain waste so animals can't interact with the litter."
Overall, Ammendolia said the goal of the study was to acknowledge the animals that died from exposure to PPE and to honour their deaths by getting more people to think twice about how they dispose of their garbage.
"The emotions behind what people witnessed highlight the good parts of humanity. The posts of citizen scientists and photographers show that people care," she said.
"I hope people will continue to document what they see because they never know when a scientist is looking."
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