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Single-Use Face Masks Are Hurting Wildlife. Here's How to Prevent This

These days, wearing a face mask is one's responsibility to keep the society safe. However, this practice caused single-use face masks, gloves, and other PPE products to rise as the newest forms of litter on city streets, beaches, and oceans. This is bad news for so many reasons, but one of the worst is its threat to wildlife.

A discarded face mask got tangled in a seagull’s legs. (RSPCA)

Last month, the employees of a car dealership in Chelmsford, Essex, noticed a young seagull on their street for several weeks. One day, the seagull's feet were tangled in the ear loops of a single-use face mask, which limited the seagull's movement, as reported by BBC News. So, the employees called the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

Adam Jones, inspector at the RSPCA, said that when he approached the creature, it tried to walk away but was unsuccessful due to the mask. "It's clear the mask was there for some time and the elastic straps had tightened around his legs as his joints were swollen," he told BBC News. He took the seagull to South Essex Wildlife Hospital, which specializes in helping sick and injured animals.

The hospital's manager, Sue Schwar, told BBC Breakfast that not only were the bird's legs swollen, but it seemed traumatized from the experience of being tangled in the mask and then confined in a box during its rescue. Fortunately, the hospital's vet was able to safely remove the mask from the seagull’s legs. Now, the seagull is relocated to an aviary where the staff is monitoring him and will release them back into the wild when they are all ready.

Schwar also explained that second to cat predation, being tangled in trash is the top reason people bring in injured animals. The hospital has also had many other cases of animals being tangled in masks and gloves, including a fox and a hedgehog.

PPE items are threatening wildlife.

Every month, an estimated 200 billion disposable face masks and plastic gloves are being disposed of and entering the environment as people try to contain the coronavirus. Ironically, these synthetic PPE items not only hurt animals by entangling them but also hurt and even kill animals who accidentally ingest them — something that commonly happens to marine life, even to some of the ocean’s biggest creatures like the sperm whale.

What’s the best way to dispose of face masks?

Single-use face masks must be disposed of properly. You should never litter it on the ground nor throw it away in an outdoor trash bin. Also, try not to set it down outside, for the wind could blow it away to unpleasant places.

A campaign that is starting globally is snipping the ear loops in half with a pair of scissors. That way, even if it still ends up in the garbage dump, the chance of it getting tangled around an animal decreases dramatically.

If you work in a medical field, the case is different because you need to be wary of where your discarded face mask will go. A solution for keeping this process sanitary would be ripping the mask in half, but this depends on the material of the mask. If this is not possible in your case, just ensure that the trash bin you are using in one in which the contents will be secured safely until the trash day.

That said, if you are not a medical professional, consider wearing a cloth face mask instead of a new single-use one for everyday use. In fact, the CDC specifically recommends that on errands and outings, people wear cloth face coverings, not medical-grade masks. Wearing a cloth mask is more eco-friendly, less likely to accidentally wind up as litter, will save you money over time, and will help reserve medical-grade masks for the healthcare workers who need them.

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