The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it the rise of a new kind of single-use plastic in the form of personal protective equipment (PPE), like disposable face masks and gloves.
As early as May of last year, environmentalists warned that these proliferating single-use items could cause a new wave of plastic pollution. Now, about a year after the World Health Organization first declared that COVID-19 had caused a global pandemic, two new studies are justifying those concerns.
The first, published on March 22 in Animal Biology, focuses on COVID litter’s impact on wildlife. It presents the first overview of how PPE is directly impacting animals by trapping or entangling them, or by being mistaken for food.
“We signal COVID-19 litter as a new threat to animal life as the materials designed to keep us safe are actually harming animals around us,” the study authors wrote.
The second, published March 30 by the charity Ocean Conservancy, emphasizes the scope of PPE pollution in the environment. The report found that volunteers with the organization’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) had collected more than 100,000 PPE items from coasts and waterways during the last six months of 2020.
“That number in itself is pretty staggering and we know that that’s really just kind of the tip of the iceberg,” ICC outreach manager Sarah Kollar said.
Covid-19 PPE Litter Is a Problem
The Ocean Conservancy study only begins to measure the amount of PPE that has entered the environment since the pandemic began. The organization was well prepared to make this initial observation because of its Clean Swell mobile app that allows volunteers to record what type of trash they encounter during the annual ICC, traditionally held on the third Saturday of September. These cleanups have led to yearly reports documenting the most frequently collected items, as well as the total amount of trash.
Ocean Conservancy added PPE to the app in late July 2020. It also sent out a survey to more than 200 ICC coordinators and volunteers asking about their experience with PPE. The results show that it is a real problem. Volunteers collected a total of 107,219 pieces of PPE in 70 of 115 participating countries. Of those surveyed, 94% reported seeing PPE at a cleanup, and 40% found five items or more. Further, 37% found the items already submerged in bodies of water.
“The amount of PPE I’m seeing, not just in the streets but also in the canal right here, is alarming and shocking,” one cleanup organizer in Miami Beach, Florida said.
But, as shocking as the reported numbers are, Ocean Conservancy thinks the true numbers are probably higher. Volunteers had already been reporting PPE to Clean Swell under the tag “personal hygiene” before it was added in July, and the number of items entered under that category increased threefold from January to June 2020 when compared to the same time period over the previous three years.
Kollar pointed out the pandemic meant fewer people were out gathering trash. If the number of volunteers had reached their usual levels, the reporting would be different. "We really think that PPE would have been even higher on our list of items collected," said Kollar.
PPE Pollution is Dangerous to Wildlife
Once all that PPE makes it into the environment, what does it do? This was the question the Dutch researchers behind the Animal Biology study sought to answer.
“It all began during one of our clean-ups in the canals of Leiden, when our volunteers found a latex glove with a dead fish, a perch, trapped in the thumb,” study coauthors Auke-Florian Hiemstra of Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Liselotte Rambonnet from Leiden University told. “Also in the Dutch canals, we observed that a water bird, the common coot, was using face masks and gloves in its nests.”
This sent the duo off on a quest to collect all the incidences they could find of animals interacting with PPE. They drew from both traditional and social media accounts to document examples. This included what the authors believe to be the first known case of an animal dying because of PPE: An American robin in British Columbia, Canada who became entangled with a face mask on April 10, 2020.
Other animals that have gotten tangled up with face masks included a fox in the UK, a pufferfish in Florida, and two crabs in France. Animals have been observed eating PPE as well. A face mask was found inside the stomach of a Magellanic penguin in Brazil. Gulls fought over one in England and long-tailed macaques chewed on one in Malaysia. Numerous dogs and cats have also munched on PPE.
The danger posed by PPE goes deeper than what the eye can see. Eighty-one percent of the Ocean Conservancy survey responders said that disposable face masks were the most commonly found form of PPE. These masks, Kollar explained, are a weave of polypropylene plastic and other polymers.
“Recent studies have found that those fibers can break down over time,” Kollar said. “Scientists are estimating that a single disposable face mask can release up to 173,000 of these microplastic fibers into the environment which, as we can all observe, would pose an immense threat .”
In other words, PPE risks joining the 15 to 51 trillion particles of microplastics estimated to be floating in the world’s oceans as of 2014. Scientists don’t yet know the impact of all these microplastics, but they know they are ingested by plankton, fish larvae, and filter feeders like oysters and scallops. These plastics may be toxic in their own right or accumulate toxins in the environment. The concern is that these toxins might work their way up the marine food web to larger animals and to humans.
Larger plastics, of course, are also already an observed problem for animals from sea turtles to dolphins. Hiemstra and Rambonnet agreed that PPE was just a new addition to an ongoing environmental problem.
“Single-use PPE is definitely contributing to the already alarming plastic pollution crisis,” they wrote. “Because of the straps, animals are more likely to get trapped than some other products but in general, it is just more products adding up to an already big pile that is also impacting animals in different ways including entanglements and ingestion.”
What Can You Do?
Luckily, there are ways that all of us can be part of the solution to the problem of PPE pollution.
Hiemstra and Rambonnet suggested using reusable PPE instead of single-use products. Kollar, however, acknowledged that for some people, reusable face masks are the best and safest choice. In that case, they should dispose of them properly by snipping the ear loops to prevent animal entanglements and throwing them away in a lidded bin that is not overstuffed. Further, Kollar said, people can cut back on other, less essential single-use plastic items to reduce the overall flow of waste.
If you still want to do more, you can also download the Clean Swell app and start collecting litter in your neighborhood, documenting what you find as you go.
“Tracking those items and especially the PPE that you find is going to help us to get an idea of this global landscape of the PPE litter and pollution problem,” Kollar said.
Hiemstra and Rambonnet are also crowdsourcing data collection. The two have started a website called covidlitter.com to gather more observations of animals impacted by PPE.
“If you find any new interactions online or observe them yourself, please share your observation below,” the website reads.
This call for observations from ordinary people is something the two studies have in common.
“We definitely think citizen scientists are very important to understand how much PPE is ending up in the environment, possibly impacting animals,” Hiemstra and Rambonnet said.