Trash surveys and cleanups
Todd Clardy, a marine scientist in Los Angeles, sometimes counts the P.P.E. he sees on the 10-minute walk from his apartment in Koreatown to the Metro station. One day this month, he said, he spotted “24 discarded masks, two rubber gloves and loads of hand sanitation towelettes.” Sometimes he sees them atop grates that read, “No Dumping, Drains to Ocean.”
Dr. Clardy suspects some masks simply slip from wrists. “Once it falls on the ground, people probably look at it like, ‘Huh, I’m not wearing that again.’” Breezes likely free some from trash cans, too. “The bins are always full,” Dr. Clardy added. “So even if you wanted to put it on top, it would fly away.”
Dr. Clardy’s accounting isn’t part of a formal project, but there are several such undertakings underway. In the Netherlands, Liselotte Rambonnet, a biologist at Leiden University, and Auke-Florian Hiemstra, a biologist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, keep a running count of masks and gloves littering streets and canals. They track animals’ interactions with the castoff gear.
Among their documented examples are an unfortunate perch trapped in the thumb of a phlegmy-looking latex glove, and birds weaving P.P.E. into nesting materials, risking entanglement. “Nowadays it would be difficult to find a coot nest in the canals of Amsterdam without a face mask,” Ms. Rambonnet and Mr. Hiemstra wrote in an email.
The researchers maintain a global website, Covidlitter.com, where anyone can report animal and P.P.E. incidents. Dispatches include sightings of a brown fur seal tangled in a face mask in Namibia; a mask-snarled puffin found dead on an Irish beach; and a sea turtle in Australia with a mask in its stomach. Back home, the researchers, who also lead canal cleanups in Leiden, worry P.P.E. trash will increase now that the Dutch government has reinstated mask requirements.
“Every weekend we encounter face masks — new ones and old, discolored ones,” Ms. Rambonnet and Mr. Hiemstra wrote. “Some are barely recognizable, and blend in with autumn leaves.”