PPE Causing Coronavirus Litter, Threatening Wildlife

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is killing birds, fish and other wildlife across the globe. According to a recent study published on the Brill website, discarded masks and gloves are showing up in locations around the globe.  Animals are fatally ingesting or becoming entangled in discarded latex gloves and disposable face masks.

The abstract to the study said, in part:

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is massively used, resulting in a new wave of litter: protective face masks and gloves. Here we present the first case of a fish entrapped in a medical glove, encountered during a canal clean-up in Leiden, The Netherlands. We also report the first cases of birds using medical face masks as nesting material, which were also found in the Dutch canals. To place these new findings in context, we collected online reported interactions of animals with PPE litter, since the start of the pandemic.

This resulted in the first overview of cases of entanglement, entrapment and ingestion of COVID-19 litter by animals and the use of it as nesting material. 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 introduction to the study said, in part:

To protect humans against this virus, personal protective equipment (PPE) is being used more frequently. China, for example, increased face mask production by 450 percent in just one month (Bown, 2020). It is estimated that we have a monthly use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves globally (Prata et al., 2020). Similar to the usage of other single-use plastic items, this also means an increase of PPE littering our environment (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020).

PPE litter, also referred to as COVID-19 litter, mainly consists of single-use (usually latex) gloves and single-use face masks, consisting of rubber strings and mostly polypropylene fabric. Three months after face masks became obligatory in the UK, PPE items were found on 30 percent of the monitored beaches and at 69 precent of inland clean-ups by the citizen scientists of the Great British Beach Clean (Riglen, 2020). Even on the uninhabited Soko Islands, Hong Kong, already 70 discarded face masks were found on just a 100-meter stretch of beach (Kassam, 2020).

The Study Finds website reported on the findings:

Biologists Auke-Florian Hiemstra from Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Liselotte Rambonnet from Leiden University are still examining how often and where animals are interacting the most with COVID products humans are discarding. Their samples and observations span the globe, from Brazil to Malaysia, coming from social media, websites, and local newspaper reports.

Researchers note incidents of foxes in the United Kingdom and birds in Canada all becoming entangled in discarded face masks. Hedgehogs, seagulls, crabs, and even bats are all encountering the disposable plastics in the environment.

Photographers, litter collectors, birdwatchers, wildlife rescue centers, and veterinarians contributed to the project.

“As a result of this, we can learn more about the impact of this category of disposable products on wildlife,” Rambonnet said in a press release on the project. “We therefore ask people to keep sharing their observations so that we can maintain an up-to-date overview.”

People are asked to submit their COVID-19 litter observations online at www.covidlitter.com.


About Catherine Smith

Catherine Smith is a newcomer to Washington D.C. She met and married an American journalist and moved to D.C. from the U.K. She graduated with a B.A. in Graphics, Media, and Communications and worked in design and retail in the U.K.

Photo: Anton Petrus/Getty Images

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