But even the ecology Ph.D. students’ vast experience with urban detritus didn’t prepare them for what they stumbled across last August.
A finger-size perch had gotten trapped in the thumb of a disposable medical glove, where it died.
The discovery—the first recorded observation of its kind—concerned Rambonnet and Hiemstra, who immediately began scouring the internet for more reports of wildlife harmed or killed by gloves, masks, and other littered personal protective equipment (PPE) used during the coronavirus pandemic. These products are predominantly made of plastic, which can be deadly to wildlife.
The pair and their colleagues recently published an analysis of 45 social media and newspaper reports in the journal Animal Biology, which collectively suggests “the material that is helping us is harming others,” says Hiemstra, of Naturalis Biodiversity Center, a research institute.
“It was really shocking,” adds Rambonnet, who studies at Leiden University. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
They uncovered reports of robins, seagulls, penguins, and even hedgehogs trapped in face mask ear loops, which can impair their movement and make them vulnerable to predation. Birds, such as the common coot, are using masks, gloves, and packaging from pocket tissues to build their nests, items that their young could ingest or get tangled in. (This is why we're drowning in plastic.)
The full scope of the problem is likely much worse, says Rambonnet, who encourages members of the public to submit news stories and their own photographs of wildlife impacted by PPE litter at their website, covidlitter.
“In dealing with the health crisis of today, we’re creating an environmental crisis for tomorrow,” says Justine Ammendolia, a Toronto-based freelance ecologist and National Geographic Explorer who is also studying pandemic-related litter. “Once these items get into the environment, it’s basically game over.”
One study estimates that the world’s healthcare facilities go through 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves each month, most of which are designed to be used once.
As the pandemic persists, the need for PPE hasn’t abated, and countries have gone to great lengths to make face masks more available to average citizens, such as lowering prices.
But as the items become more ubiquitous and less valuable, litter is increasing. Cleanup volunteers, for instance, have found more than a hundred discarded face masks in a single day in Leiden. (What to know about do-it-yourself masks.)
In Toronto, Canada, Ammendolia and her partner, fellow ecologist Jacquelyn Saturno, also noticed an uptick in PPE litter. Like the Dutch team, Ammendolia and Saturno used their time in lockdown to systematically study the litter around the city,
Over just five weeks of hour-long evening walks, the pair recovered 1,306 pieces of PPE, according to their study, published earlier this year in Environmental Pollution.
Adding to the problem, the pandemic has also boosted demand for single-use plastics—such as plastic cutlery for takeout food—in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. An October 2020 study estimated that the world has generated 1.76 million tons of plastic waste each day during the pandemic.
Like Rambonnet and Hiemstra, Ammendolia immediately began worrying about how the surge in garbage would affect wildlife.
The same plastic problem
Kate Sheehan, an ecologist at Maryland’s Frostburg State University who is studying how plastics hurt wildlife, says that COVID-19 litter poses the same threats in the long-term as other plastic pollution.
Whether it’s a mask or a bottle, plastic doesn’t degrade in the environment. Instead, it breaks down into tiny fragments called microplastics that can get into an animal’s lungs or stomach and cause infections and blockages. As an animal’s body tries to metabolize the plastic, the leached chemicals can also injure or outright kill them. (Read how microplastics are harming marine life—and possibly us.)
Of course, the true risks posed by COVID 19-related PPE will take many years to determine, Sheehan cautions.
“Right now it’s like a big, black box. We don’t know the potential impacts of microplastics in general,” Sheehan says.
Shifting from single-use to reusable masks could make a big difference in the amount of PPE litter found, says Helen Lowman, president and CEO of the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful. (Learn more about how to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet.)
She also encourages the public to take the extra second to discard single-use items in the dumpster. In general, face masks and PPE aren’t recyclable or appropriate for use in compost.
Ultimately, Hiemstra hopes his research gets people thinking about what happens to wildlife if they litter. “These items are used once,” he says, “but [stay] in nature for hundreds of years."