Effects of COVID-19 litter on wildlife

Auke-Florian Hiemstra & Liselotte Rambonnet with perch entrapped in glove A portrait of Liselotte Rambonnet (R) and Auke-Florian Hiemstra (L) in Leiden, the Netherlands, 20 Februari 2021. CREDIT ALEXANDER SCHIPPERS

Adapting to the COVID-19 epidemic has required people to make the jump to using personal protective equipment (PPE) in their daily lives. When leaving the house, the mental checklist of things to check your pockets for now includes face masks and gloves along with the routine wallet and keys. But while protective gear is necessary to keep people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, non-reusable gloves and face masks are quickly becoming a threat to wildlife in the form of litter. 

Two Dutch biologists, Auke-Florian Hiemstra from Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Liselotte Rambonnet from Leiden University, set out to document how wildlife is interacting with COVID-19 litter. The researchers were familiar with the effect of plastic litter on the freshwater environment: every Sunday they would participate in the Plastic Spotter clean-ups, gathering with a team of volunteers in canoes to go “litter fishing” in the canals of Leiden.

“When we do this clean-up in the city-centre of Leiden, in just a small round of canoeing (an hour or two), we will find more than 100 face masks. These are always all single-use. Almost never do we find reusable ones,” says Hiemstra.

On one of their weekly expeditions in August 2020, a volunteer found the first victim of COVID-19 litter in the Netherlands impacting wildlife: a perch trapped in the thumb of a disposable medical glove. “We were so amazed by this interaction between an animal and COVID-19 litter, we started searching for other examples,” says Hiemstra.

Perch trapped in glove
Perch trapped in glove (Auke-Florian Hiemstra)

The researchers scoured research publications, social media, and news clips. Their accumulated findings told a shocking story: a diverse array of animals are affected by COVID-19 litter. 

A hedgehog was found entangled in a face mask in the Netherlands. A common octopus was seen hiding under a face mask in a sea near France. A Megallanic penguin was found dead on a beach in Brazil, a face mask in its stomach. Domestic animals, both dog and cat, have ingested COVID-19 litter. 

“The broadness, that every part of the animal kingdom is affected by this type of litter, that really rings all the alarm bells for us biologists, that it’s a much bigger problem that we thought it was,” Hiemstra says.

The first wildlife death attributed to COVID-19 litter turned up in Chilliwack, British Columbia. An American robin, found dead and entangled in the strings of a non-reusable face mask, showcases the very real threat this new type of litter poses to animals. 

However, Hiemstra also captured an interaction between wildlife and COVID-19 litter that wasn’t directly negative. In the Netherlands, a common coot, which Hiemstra describes as an elegant black waterbird, incorporated a face mask and glove into the construction of its nest.

Bird nest made with face mask and glove
Bird nest made with face mask and glove (Auke-Florian Hiemstra)

Hiemstra thinks that the rise of COVID-19 litter can be attributed to people devaluing disposable face masks and gloves. “At the start of the pandemic, face masks, at least in Europe, would cost like 10 Euros. Which is quite a big sum of money. Then you were really cautious with your mask because you don’t want to lose an item that is so expensive,” he explains. “Quite soon into the pandemic, there were these big boxes you could buy with a few hundred face masks, therefore decreasing the value of such an item.” 

“If you lose a [disposable] face mask, well it doesn’t matter because you have a box at home with a hundred other ones,” he adds. 

A reusable face mask sidesteps this issue because its owner is likely to value and take care of it. “With the reusable one, it’s more expensive, so you’re probably more cautious about it. You don’t want to lose it because it has a nice print, or it fits your personality,” Hiemstra says.

Hiemstra and Rambonnet have launched a website called covidlitter.com, where members of the public can submit photos of wildlife interacting with COVID-19 litter. “With this website we’re really trying to get all the observations that are out there,” says Hiemstra. He acknowledges that observations from birdwatchers, nature photographers, litter pickers, and animal rescue centre volunteers make the COVID-19 litter research possible. He encourages everyone to participate, and to help “shed a light” on this growing environmental threat.

Read more: Cottager creates art with litter

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