COVID Litter is Polluting the Environment and Killing Wildlife, Reports Say


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 told Treehugger. 

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. 

Maddie Black/Ocean Conservancy.

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 Treehugger in an email. “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…

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