Much has been said about how the Covid-19 pandemic gave Earth's ecosystems a short but sweet break from relentless human activity. While that might hold some truth, the ongoing outbreak has also given wildlife a new scourge: medical trash, disposable face masks, and rubber gloves.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in the UK has warned about the risk of animals becoming entangled in personal protective equipment (PPE). In one case, a seagull was recently spotted in the English city of Chelmsford struggling to move because a face mask had become wrapped around its legs.
“I went out to catch him and when he tried to hop away he would stumble and fall. As soon as I caught him it was clear to see why as the poor thing had a disposable Covid face mask tangled around both legs," Adam Jones, an inspector at the RSPCA who helped to rescue the gull, said in a statement.
Jones managed to catch the troubled seabird and passed it over to a specialist team at South Essex Wildlife Hospital where staff managed to cut the mask off.
“It’s clear the mask was there for some time and the elastic straps had tightened around his legs as his joints were swollen and sore,” Jones explained. “Thankfully, he’s been doing well and is being monitored closely. They’ve now released him out into an aviary with other gulls and, when the group is ready, they’ll all be released together."
With face masks becoming mandatory in increasingly more jurisdictions across the world, the RSPCA fear they could soon be seeing many more cases like this.
“I’m concerned that this gull could be the first of many victims now that face masks are the norm,” continued Jones.
The moral of the story: dispose of your PPE appropriately and responsibly. Widely speaking, PPE and other medical equipment should be disposed of in the general refuse trash cans and not recycling. This is because they are potentially contaminated by pathogens and are considered a health hazard.
Littering of PPE has become so severe in France, the government has even toyed with the idea of increasing fines for people caught dropping trash on the street.
The RSPCA isn't the first organization to sound the alarm on this problem. Back in June, French ocean conservation group Opération Mer Propre reported the Mediterranean Sea is becoming swamped with disposable face masks, latex gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, and other non-recyclable PPE items. Although there’s no data on the scale of the problem yet, many people fear it could become quite a substantial environmental problem in the short-term.