Pandemic face masks could harm wildlife for years to come - Natural History Museum

The protective equipment that kept us safe during from COVID-19 could pose a lethal threat to nature.

While no longer as prevalent as they once were, the billions of face masks and gloves that were produced during the pandemic are making plastic pollution an ever-greater issue.

The use of face masks in nests risks chicks and their parents becoming entangled, which can be lethal. Image © Declan Friel
The use of face masks in nests risks chicks and their parents becoming entangled, which can be lethal. Image © Declan Friel

The impacts of COVID-19 go far beyond the disease itself, and are set to stay with us for centuries to come.

A study using community science observations from around the world found that disposable face masks and plastic gloves could pose an ongoing risk to wildlife for tens if not hundreds of years. Entanglements were one of the most prevalent threats, with some animals being killed after becoming caught in the plastic debris.

Dr Alex Bond, the Principal Curator and Curator in Charge of Birds at the Museum, was a co-author on the paper. 'Ultimately, we really don't know how big a problem pandemic waste could be,' Alex says. 'As many areas of the world had restrictions on non-essential movement, we will never be able to know the true extent of the issue, but this study gives us a snapshot into the sheer diversity of species that were affected.'

While the study captures only 114 observations from around the world, it is likely that it represents just a fraction of the much larger impacts of COVID-19 waste on wildlife.

With an estimated global demand of over 129 billion masks per month at the height of the pandemic, the effect of pandemic waste will become more pronounced as even more plastic works its way into our ecosystems.

'We filter out most litter in our environment, as it represents examples such as crisp packets or cigarette butts that we've seen for years or decades,' Alex adds. 'When PPE [personal protective equipment] flooded our waste management systems in the early days of the pandemic, it was a lot more obvious because it was new. Now we don't even flinch when we see a blue face mask on the ground. It's rapidly become part of our everyday experience of waste in our environment.'

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect plastic pollution?

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, it kickstarted what the scientists describe as an 'unprecedented increase in the production and use of single-use plastics.'

The market value of the PPE industry jumped by around 200 times in the first year of the pandemic as legal requirements were introduced in countries around the world to stem the spread of the virus.

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Posted On: 04/08/2022

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