Protection against Covid turns into responsibility for wildlife
While face coverings remain invaluable in the fight against Covid-19, discarded single-use masks could add to plastic pollution in Dunedin and threaten wildlife.
Wildlife Hospital Trust director Jordana Whyte said for animals like seabirds and ducks, mask straps could cause the most immediate damage.
International media had shown many animals – birds in particular – getting caught in the mask earrings.
It’s absolutely happening [internationally], and a real risk here in Dunedin. ”
Dunedin is a seabird capital with 11 species breeding near the city and 19 species frequenting coastal waters.
The coastline is home to several endangered birds, including yellow-eyed penguins, New Zealand royal albatrosses, and fairy prions.
âFortunately, we have yet to meet a patient entangled in a disposable mask, but it’s not hard to imagine that could happen at any time,â Ms. Whyte said.
âAnd just because we haven’t had any birds that have come to the hospital after getting entangled or ingesting masks doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. They can just stay unknown or die before they get help. ”
Using reusable masks or cutting earrings before discarding single-use masks would help reduce the risk to wildlife.
It was also crucial to learn how to properly dispose of face masks to ensure they did not end up in the southern oceans, said Juressa Lee, activist for Greenpeace Aotearoa Plastics.
âWaste, and in particular plastic waste, is everywhere.
Through waterways and over time, much of it ends up in the ocean.
âThe impact of plastics and microplastics on our ecosystems is devastating.
“ One in three sea turtles, more than half of whale and dolphin species, and nine in 10 seabirds have ingested plastic. ”
While I know people are developing solutions to Covid waste, for now the best advice is to throw away the masks as best you can. [in rubbish bins, positioned so they are not likely to blow away in wind], cutting the strings and, where possible and appropriate, using reusable masks, ” she said.
Single-use or disposable face masks are made from a variety of plastics, including polypropylene, polyethylene, and vinyl, which means they can take up to 450 years for their materials to break down.
Even then, the plastic can remain as tiny particles of microplastic.
While it is important to cut the earrings on the masks before discarding them, it is also important to remember that face masks can carry Covid-19 after being discarded.
Members of the public should be careful not to touch the masks lying around in the street.