Masks that helped save lives during the coronavirus pandemic are proving a deadly hazard for wildlife, with birds and marine creatures ensnared in the staggering number of discarded facial coverings littering animal habitats.
Single-use surgical masks have been found scattered around pavements, waterways and beaches worldwide since countries began mandating their use in public places to slow the pandemic’s spread.
“Face masks aren’t going away any time soon — but when we throw them away, these items can harm the environment and the animals who share our planet,” Ashley Fruno of animal rights group PETA told AFP.
The biggest impact may be in the water, with green groups alarmed at the flood of used masks, latex gloves and other protective gear finding their way into already contaminated seas and rivers.
More than 1.5 billion masks made their way into the world’s oceans last year, accounting for around 6,200 extra tonnes of marine plastic pollution, according to environmental group OceansAsia.
Masks and gloves are “particularly problematic” for sea creatures, says George Leonard, chief scientist from US-based NGO Ocean Conservancy.
“When those plastics break down in the environment, they form smaller and smaller particles,” he told AFP.
Those particles then enter the food chain and impact entire ecosystems, he added.
There has been a shift towards greater use of reusable cloth masks as the pandemic has worn on, but many are still opting for the lighter single-use varieties.
Campaigners have urged people to bin them properly and snip the straps to reduce the risk of animals becoming ensnared.