Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, wearing a mask has been one of the main public health measures implemented to combat the disease. Since March 2020, billions of disposable surgical masks have been used around the world, raising the question: what happens to all those used masks?
As researchers in the field of single-use plastics and microplastics pollution, we understood that a global wave of plastic waste pollution was brewing from the first days of the pandemic, even during the periods of confinement, when physical exercise was limited to short walks in the neighborhood. Masks and gloves littered the ground, flew in the wind and clung to fences.
Moreover, as ecologists, we had an idea of where this waste would be found: in nests, the stomachs of wild animals or wrapped around their legs.
In Canada, a team of researchers led by conservation biologist Jennifer Provencher has studied the impact of plastic residues on the wildlife. In a study conducted during the cleaning of a canal in the Netherlands, biologists from the Naturalis biodiversity center found that residues of personal protective equipment (PPE) exhibited a similar interaction with wildlife as other plastics.
Effects on wildlife
In a cartoon circulating on the interneta rat returns home with bags of groceries and finds two other rats lying in stacked hammocks made of surgical masks. The rat lying down exclaims, “There are free hammocks all over town. A real miracle! »
We shared this drawing with our colleagues at the start of the pandemic, when we were investigating PPE litter on Toronto streets and parking lots.
We found that in the area we studied (which covers an area of Toronto equivalent to about 45 football fields), more than 14,000 disposable disinfectant masks, gloves or wipes had accumulated by the end of the year. Enough to make entire dormitories of rat hammocks.
We needed to understand the extent of damage caused to wildlife by PPE. We found that many other people were also concerned about the situation.
After conducting a global survey of social media accounts investigating wildlife interactions with PPE residue, we discovered shocking images: a hedgehog caught in a mask, the rubber bands tangled in its quills. A tiny bat, the rubber bands of two masks wrapped around one of its wings. A nest, filled with ivory-white eggs, insulated with fluffy feathers and a fabric mask.
Many of these animals died, but most were alive when they were observed, and some may have been freed from their plastic traps by the people who took their pictures.
In all, we found 114 cases of wildlife interactions with PPE waste, reported on social media by concerned people around the world. Most wild animals were birds (83%), but mammals (11%), fish (2%), invertebrates such as an octopus (4%) and sea turtles (1%) also been observed.
The majority of sightings came from the United States (29), England (16), Canada (13) and Australia (11), which is likely due to both the increase in l access to mobile devices and the fact that our search keywords were in English. Sightings also came from 22 other countries spread across every continent except Antarctica.
To weigh the pros and cons
While we estimates that 129 billion the number of masks used each month in the worldhow can we, as ecologists and environmental researchers, tell people everywhere on the planet facing a global pandemic to use fewer masks? It’s just not possible.
N95 masks have played a vital role in reducing the transmission of Covid-19 and, although they are more harmful to the environment than cloth masks, their health benefits are unquestionably superior.
So what could we have done better? During our research on waste from PPE, we found a profusion of masks and gloves discarded near public trash cans.
We hypothesize that the lack of clear messages from municipalities and provinces on the proper ways to dispose of PPE, as well as our reluctance to congregate near where they are dumped, likely contributed to this global pollution phenomenon.
Improving the ways in which used PPE can be disposed of could help prevent used masks from ending up in the wild.
The lessons learned from this experience can still be implemented as we continue to weather the waves of this pandemic; the use of masks is not over yet. Our research continues and we are monitoring the accumulation of PPE waste that will likely end up in other nests and around the bodies of other animals.
While an increase in single-use plastic use caused by Covid-19 was likely inevitable, the rise in plastic pollution could have been mitigated through investments in public awareness and infrastructure changes waste management. Masks and other PPE could thus have been disposed of and treated correctly, with a minimum of releases into the environment.