Covid’s ecological cost

By John Pickrell May 31, 2022
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Pandemic-related pollution is clogging the environment, with potentially deadly consequences.

In late 2020 Australian Geographic contributor and Lord Howe Island Marine Park manager Justin Gilligan photographed huge numbers of disposable masks washed up on the beaches of the relatively remote and typically pristine isle, 780km north-east of Sydney.

The discovery highlighted the surprising toll in terms of environmental pollution that the COVID pandemic is having across the planet.

Experts say masks can take hundreds of years to break down in the environment, and there have emerged many reports of animals becoming ensnared in these and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

Examples seen widely on the internet include: a fish trapped inside a plastic glove in the Netherlands; an ibis in Brisbane, a white-tailed eagle in Germany and a seagull in the UK, all of which had disposable masks entangling their feet; and a Magellanic penguin in Brazil that died after ingesting an FFP2 mask.

As of late 2021, scientists at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands had documented at least 62 examples of wildlife either trapped in or killed by PPE. 

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The amount of waste being generated due to COVID is staggering. In November, researchers at China’s Nanjing University published findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the pandemic had by then resulted in 8.4 million tonnes of plastic waste, 26,000t of which had ended up in the world’s oceans.

The study was the first to quantify the scale of environmental pollution resulting from the pandemic. About 87 per cent of this waste came from hospitals – including plastic gloves, gowns and masks – with only about 8 per cent of the waste generated by individuals.

This COVID-related pollution “poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean environment and is mainly accumulated on beaches and coastal sediments”, write the authors, who say public awareness of the impact of PPE needs to be increased. They argue that new technologies could improve waste collection, treatment and recycling, while the development of environmentally friendly materials to make PPE is also key. 

Another study, in the journal Nature Sustainability in December, found that between March and October 2020 there had been a 9000 per cent increase in the amount of mask-related litter in 11 surveyed countries. Further studies have shown masks can contribute dangerous chemical pollutants, as well as tiny plastic fibres, into the environment and that these may enter food chains – potentially resulting in long-term impacts. 

Pip Kiernan, chair of litter advocacy group Clean Up Australia, says the pandemic has seen “immense disruption to our lives and the environment”, with a significant increase on Australian beaches of not only masks but other single-use plastics such as coffee cups and food delivery packaging. “The damage of single-use plastics left in the environment will outlive us all and action is urgently needed,” she said last year. 

Sadly, there is relatively little we can do as consumers to prevent this waste ending up in the world’s oceans. Clearly, PPE is a currently vital piece of our armour in the battle against SARS-CoV-2. 

One thing you can do to help the situation is make sure you are disposing of masks properly. Another suggestion from the RSPCA is that you snip off the straps of masks before throwing them away. This should at least help prevent them becoming death traps if they do eventually come into contact with wildlife. 

Related: COVID has reached Antarctica and scientists are concerned for its wildlife