Since the global pandemic of the COVID-19 virus began in March 2020, there has been a massive increase in litter and plastic pollution due to the unprecedented use of gloves and face masks by the general public for personal protection. Often these materials are not disposed of properly, leading to this litter posing a significant threat to wildlife through risks of entanglement, entrapment or ingestion. There is an urgent need for the community to ensure that any disused face masks, gloves and other materials are disposed of in an appropriate manner which will not harm animals.
What are the risks to animals caused by discarded face masks and gloves?
Since 2020, the increased use of face masks and gloves has occurred globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic . With the requirement for mandatory use of face masks in many countries, this has seen their use expand significantly with one study reporting that in one month globally over 129 billion face masks were used . With this heightened use, there is also an increase in the litter comprising face masks and gloves being reported including on beaches. For example, 70 face masks were reported to be found on a 100-metre stretch of beach on an uninhabited island near Hong Kong . Face masks can also pose risks to companion animals (pets), mainly from ingestion, which can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and even death.
The main risks to wild animals caused by masks and gloves include:
- Entanglement and entrapment which can cause death due to drowning or suffocation. The animal may become exhausted if they continue to struggle trying to escape, or they may not be able to move normally which can lead to reduced feeding and possible eventual starvation. Entanglement and entrapment can also cause severe wounds and fractures which may lead to overwhelming infections requiring limbs to be amputated and/or death. Entanglement can result in strangulation, which is usually fatal. If an animal that is a prey species is entangled, they may be targeted by predators as they are unable to escape. Affected animals may also experience pain, fear, anxiety and distress.
- Ingestion of masks and gloves and consumption of microplastics (from the degradation of the masks and gloves) which can cause intestinal blockages, lacerations, and infections which can lead to reduced feed intake, starvation and death.
What can we do to minimise harm to animals?
Several things can be done to help prevent animals suffering due to litter caused by discarded face masks and gloves. It is advisable to follow health guidelines on the safe re-use of disposable masks where these are used and to minimise the total number of masks used without compromising health guidelines or safety. When it is time to dispose of your mask, ensure that the ear loops are cut and that they are disposed of in a covered waste container to avoid contents spilling out. If discarded masks and gloves are found in the environment, if possible, safely remove and dispose of the litter responsibly without directly contacting the material.
 Hiemstra A-F, Rambonnet L, Gravendeel B et al (2021) The effects of COVID-19 on animal life. Animal Biology 71:215-231.
 Prata J, Silva ALP, Walker TR et al (2020) COVID-19 pandemic repercussions on the use and management of plastics. Environment, Science and Technology, 54:7760-7765.
 Kassam A (2020) ‘More masks than jellyfish’: coronavirus waste ends up in ocean. The Guardian.