The latex glove was streaked, dirty, yellow-gray, the color of a plastic bag that jumped into a tree and tangled in the branches. When Dutch citizen scientists spotted him in August 2020 while collecting trash along the Oude Vest Canal in Leiden, they noticed something disturbing. The glove was torn, and stuck in a gash under the thumb, they saw a tail. He was fringed and a little red, and he belonged to a creature that had swam and never found its way out.
This unfortunate fish – a European perch, Perca fluviatilis—Is one of the many animals that have recently found themselves at the mercy of the pandemic-related wave of disposables. Humans have now been living alongside Covid-19 for over a year – and that means other animals, too. During months, scientists suspected that animals are affected by disposable masks, plastic gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) that people have lost or thrown away in parks, waterways and other public spaces. Now, researchers have gathered observations from several countries to see how the creatures grapple with our offspring.
The Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, regularly hosts the International coastal cleaning, a blitz of garbage collection events around the world. Last July, the organization added “PPE” as a category of waste that participants could connect to an application. The Ocean Conservancy followed an investigation in early 2021 and found that 94% of respondents had observed PPE pollution during cleaning operations the previous year. (In total, volunteers transported nearly 107,220 pieces of PPE – mostly masks and gloves – to 70 countries.) Most of this waste was found on sand, grass or sidewalks, but more a third of the participants reported PPE in the oceans or elsewhere. body of water. Just over half of those surveyed also said they see unwanted PPE every day in their home community.
Since PPE was a newly introduced category, there is no perfect way to assess how these numbers compare to results from previous years. But the report’s authors suggest that this variety of waste may have been captured by counts in other categories, such as “Personal Hygiene” or the “Other Waste” tote. (It’s also the umbrella that covered it until mid-2020.) The authors identify PPE as the reason personal hygiene waste was three times more common during the period than it did. measured in 2020, compared to the same period over the past three years.
With ecosystems around the world more inundated with PPE than ever before, other researchers are following the animals’ reactions. A recent article in Animal biology, the journal of the Royal Dutch Zoological Society, provides an overview.
For this research, a team of scientists in the Netherlands, led by biologists Auke-Florian Hiemstra and Liselotte Rambonnet from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Institute of Biology at Leiden University, scoured Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to obtain images and posts tagged with a combination of words such as “litter”, “Covid”, “face mask”, “PPE”, “matted”, “trapping”, “bird’s nest” etc. The document identified 28 sightings, many of which were reported by rescue centers or veterinarians. The team also maintains a website which invites anyone in the world to report sightings of animals trapped or ingesting PPE.
The team found animals linked to our pandemic waste in several ways. The birds wove the trash into their nests: The vulgar coots of the Netherlands incorporated a face mask and a latex glove, a product that also padded the digs of some sparrows in Warsaw, Poland. More troubling still, other animals mistook the trash for dinner. In September, a Magellanic penguin in Brazil ate a face mask. The following month, someone from Malaysia described a long-tailed macaque chewing it. Other creatures got stuck. A bat and a hedgehog in the Netherlands got tangled up in masks. In February, someone reported one coiled around a herring gull in Canada. In March, someone in the Philippines saw one of the face masks strangling coral.