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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 manager Jordana Whyte said for animals like seabirds and ducks, it was the straps of the masks that could cause the most immediate harm.
International media had shown many animals — birds in particular — getting caught up in mask ear loops.
‘‘It is absolutely happening [internationally], and a real risk here in Dunedin.’’
Dunedin is a seabird capital with 11 species breeding close to the city and 19 species frequenting shoreline waters.
The coastline is home to several endangered birds including yellow-eyed penguins, royal New Zealand albatross and fairy prions.
‘‘Thankfully, we haven’t yet encountered a patient entangled in a disposable mask, but it isn’t difficult to imagine that it might happen at any time,’’ Ms Whyte said.
‘‘And just because we haven’t had any birds who have presented to the hospital after getting entangled or ingesting masks, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. They may just remain undiscovered or die before getting help.’’
Using reusable masks, or cutting off ear loops before disposing of single-use masks would help reduce risk to wildlife.
It was also crucial to learn how to properly dispose of face masks to ensure they did not end up in southern oceans, Greenpeace Aotearoa Plastics campaigner Juressa Lee said.
‘‘Litter, and especially plastic litter, is pervasive.
‘‘Through waterways, and with weather, much of it ends up in the ocean.
‘‘The 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 of 10 seabirds have ingested plastic.’’
‘‘While I know people are crunching solutions to Covid waste, for now the best advice is to dispose of masks as best as you can [in rubbish bins, positioned so they are not likely to blow away in wind], cutting the strings, and wherever possible and appropriate, to use reusable masks,’’ she said.
Single-use or disposable face masks are made using a variety of plastics, including polypropylene, polyethylene and vinyl, which means they could take up to 450 years for their materials to break down.
Even then, the plastic can stay around as tiny microplastic particles.
While it is important to cut ear loops on masks before disposing of them, it is also important to remember that face masks can carry Covid-19 after they have been discarded.
Members of the public should be wary of touching masks lying on the street.