Nfld. & Labrador

Gull snared by medical mask has biologists calling for awareness of PPE pollution

Seabird biologists are voicing their concerns about medical masks ending up in the province's waterways and entangling birds and other wildlife after images were posted online of a gull at Quidi Vidi Lake with the ear loop of a mask around its neck.

129 billion face masks used every month in 2020, says marine bird biologist

Marine bird biologist and photographer Lancy Cheng found this seagull caught in a medical mask at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's. (Lancy Cheng/Facebook)

Seabird biologists are expressing their concerns about medical masks ending up in the province's waterways and entangling birds and other wildlife after images were posted online of a gull at Quidi Vidi Lake trapped in the ear loop of a mask. 

"It's incredibly disheartening and discouraging. It would be anyway, but this lake has an international designation as an important bird area," said Holly Hogan, who has been studying marine birds for 30 years.

Hogan told CBC Radio's The Broadcast another image from the same set shows another gull with plastic rings from aluminum cans around its beak.

Hogan said there is already awareness of plastic pollution in the ocean but when single-use personal protective equipment became a staple during the COVID-19 pandemic, she started worrying about its disposal.

"Everybody disposing of these single-use masks, I thought, 'Where are they going to go?' and well, we know where some of them are ending up, unfortunately," she said. 

Hogan said about 129 billion face masks and 69 billion disposable gloves were used every month in 2020. 

"Not surprisingly, a large number of these ended up in the ocean, and there are very conservative estimates [that] between 1.5 and two billion face masks ended up in the ocean in 2020," she said.

Single-use mentality

Hogan said there's a feeling of stepping backwards in the public's attempt to limit plastic use. 

Using bulk food retailer Bulk Barn as an example, she said people used to be able to bring reusable containers to the store, but during the pandemic, the store handed out single-use plastic gloves to be worn while shopping and didn't allow reusable containers. 

"Some of it is certainly justified; people need to protect their health, and that is the No. 1 priority," Hogan said. 

"Not to pick on the Bulk Barn, I mean they're doing it for our safety, but it seems like in the face of the pandemic, people are almost in a state of panic."

A second gull was entangled in plastic rings used for soda or beer cans. (Lancy Cheng/Facebook)

Not many people are aware that the single-use non-medical masks they're buying and discarding are made from plastics, meaning they won't break down in a landfill, Hogan noted. 

She said masks break down into micro-plastics, creating other problems for the environment. 

"As an intact mask, with its loops, it entangles creatures, potentially. But it is, and it remains, plastic waste in the environment doing the damage that all plastics do," she said.

Hogan says awareness and education should be the focus. 

"These things don't disappear when they leave your hands or when they leave your face," said Hogan. "Cut off the ear loops so that if they do unintentionally end up in the environment then they're not suddenly a nuisance for some animal."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The Broadcast

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