By John Macklien Olandag | April 2, 2021
A whopping 129 billion – that’s the number of single-use face masks that the world had discarded during the pandemic, according to Arirang News.
This is by far one of the biggest threats that the world’s fauna has been facing through the ongoing COVID–19 pandemic. While the people are setting the course to protect themselves from the COVID–19 virus by wearing their protective equipment (PPEs), face masks included, the “green pandemic” also threatens the wildlife.
The world has seen law-abiding citizens through observing the health protocols, complemented by their initiative to be safe from the COVID–19 virus. Face masks, with varying protective capabilities, have been a part of these steps in containing the virus.
But while the people have been protecting themselves from the threat of the pathogen, nature has also paid the price for the people’s safety.
The Straps in our Face Masks and the Danger
“This bird was caught in a tree for two days. The mask’s elastic ear material was also wrapped around its neck…. please share this. Unfortunately, the bird did not make it.”
This was reported by the Canadian media outfit, The Independent after a British Columbia resident found a dead bird suffocated by a discarded face mask, with its straps wrapped around the bird’s neck.
Trash is generally harmful to the flora and fauna. The high concentrations of these wastes may go into wastewaters, either clogging or poisoning marine life, affecting the symbiosis between organisms. Sadly, the trade-off between human safety and environmental preservation has been more visible as single-use masks and protective gear tend to be practical to use in the world’s fight against its minute foe.
Surgical face masks have about 80% effectiveness against the virus, compared to reusable cloth masks which offer about 50% of protection, making the former a more considerable option for the public in protecting themselves against the virus. Greater effectiveness may mean more generated wastes as these materials need to be disposed of after use to prevent the virus from spreading.
The term “green pandemic” is an inverse concept for the people’s growing initiative to contain the COVID–19 pandemic, while also harming the environment and denying the flora and fauna at least a decent fresh air and clean water and land to thrive in. The discarded face masks are one of the horrible nightmares for animals especially those living in the wild.
Chris Sherwood, chief executive of Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), had this to say, “We have dealt with a heartbreaking 900 incidents of animals caught in litter since the start of lockdown – including animals tangled in face masks. For many years, the public has been aware of the message to cut up plastic six-pack rings before throwing them away to stop animals getting tangled in them, and now we are keen to get out the message that the same should be done for face masks, too – as very sadly, animals are susceptible to getting tangled up in them.”
RSPCA’s inspector Adam Jones had once noted a face mask strap tightened around a gull’s legs and its joints were swollen and sore, an evident sign that the mask had been there for some time.
These “alien wastes” may also get along the waters and fish may be entangled by the discarded face masks in the waters, therefore, suffocating them. These straps can get also in the way of birds and other fauna, as these disposable face masks may hurt them as they get wrapped up around their legs and beaks, causing them to sore and even in some instances, to be detached or cut.
How Can We Save the Environment, Animals from ‘Avoidable Death’?
The surging cases of COVID–19 infections just increased the demand for single-use protective gear, especially for medical doctors. But at least, we can always save a life in the wild by taking the following steps:
Opt for reusable cloth masks especially if you are not in the medical field. The medical field is one, if not the most, vulnerable sector in the society in this pandemic. To reduce the generation of wastes, those who are less susceptible or exposed can always look for eco-friendly and modest protection by using washable cloth masks.
Cut the straps first before disposing of your single-use face masks. The most sensible thing to save a life while disposing of your face masks is to actually cut its ear straps. We have already seen its impacts on the fauna. Yet, their deaths can be avoided by actually cutting off these straps that can entangle and injure them.
Dispose your face masks properly in a separate bin. Face masks and protective gears should be disposed of in another bin. This can also help our waste workers from being potentially contaminated with the virus that might stay on these materials for days. Along with protecting waste collectors, we will also be able to save the environment from the harmful concentration of these wastes.
Arirang News. (2020, September 18). A new hazard: “Countless masks polluting nature” [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/7p7awU6ZeFA
Chua, J. (2021, February 21). Before you dispose your face mask, please cut the straps first. Manila Bulletin. Retrieved March 27, 2021, from https://mb.com.ph/2021/02/20/before-you-dispose-your-face-mask-please-cut-the-straps-first/#:~:text=We%20have%20had%20to%20rescue,half%20before%20throwing%20it%20away.%E2%80%9D
Heart Global. (2020, September 4). RSPCA warn public to cut face masks before disposing of them to save wildlife. Retrieved March 28, 2021, from https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.heart.co.uk/lifestyle/rspca-warn-face-masks-wildlife/
Hirsh, S. (2020, August 20). Single-Use Face Masks Are Hurting Wildlife. Here’s How to Dispose of Masks Safely. Green Matters. Retrieved March 28, 2021, from https://www.greenmatters.com/p/face-masks-wildlife
Spencer, H. (2020, September 14). RSPCA Urges People to Cut Straps on Disposable Masks to Protect Wildlife from Getting Caught. The Independent. Retrieved March 28, 2021, from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.independent.co.uk/life-style/snip-straps-masks-warning-rspca-animals-wildlife-injured-b435640.html%3famp
Whitehead, J. (2020, September 13). Cut the straps on disposable face masks to avoid hurting animals, RSPCA pleads. iNews. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.google.com/amp/s/inews.co.uk/news/face-masks-snip-straps-rspca-hurting-animals-tangled-reusable-644226/amp