How were wildlife affected by COVID-19 waste?
The researchers used data from a variety of sources, including unpublished scientific reports, community science platforms and social media networks. The witnesses were then contacted to gain as much information about each pandemic waste incident as possible.
In total, the researchers gathered 114 sightings, of which 83% involved birds. Mammals were the next most exposed to COVID-19 waste, in 11% of sightings, while 3.5% of sightings featured invertebrates and 2% involved fish.
The results reflect existing research which shows that birds are at particular risk of entanglement from plastic, with an estimated third of seabird species and a tenth of freshwater species known to have been caught in synthetic items.
As a whole, entanglement reflects around 42% of the impact of pandemic waste on wildlife, but this is only slightly more than the 40% of sightings which saw masks and gloves used to build nests.
‘Many birds build nests and they generally build them out of filamentous items, whether that’s grass, twigs, moss or spider silk,’ Alex says. ‘Unfortunately, a lot of rubbish has the same characteristics, particularly objects like masks that have strings to loop around the ears. When that is incorporated into nests, it presents a significant entanglement risk to both adults and their chicks.’
Though the study was limited to English language searches, and social media platforms that aren’t as dominant in some nations of the world, the research provides an insight into how the pandemic will continue to affect the environment.
With disposable face masks estimated to take up to 450 years to decompose, the waste left behind by the response to COVID-19 will have to be considered in any future attempts to tackle global plastic pollution.
In this fight against waste, the study demonstrated that community scientists could be relied upon as allies to help find and alert others to the problem.
The researchers called for greater efforts to develop more streamlined community science platforms to help people from all walks of life to assist scientists and policymakers in the battle against plastic pollution while making the field more equitable.