Coronavirus: Concern after hundreds of face masks wash up on beach

Michael Dahlstrom
·News and Video Producer
·6-min read

A staggering 326 disposable coronavirus masks have been picked up by a man from a single NSW beach.

Wildlife ecologist Louis O’Neill worked quickly to collect the face coverings after spotting whales and seabirds close to the shore at Bouddi National Park, 45km north of Sydney.

Mr O’Neill told Yahoo News Australia the situation left him feeling “demoralised” as he feared wildlife would become entangled by masks still in the water.

He is one of a handful of volunteers around NSW who are still cleaning up beaches after the Singapore flagged APL England lost about 40 containers amid rough waters in May.

Pictured left is piles of rubbish collected by Louis O'Neill and place in front of bins. Right is a pile of masks collected by Mr O'Neill.
A Central Coast man picked up more than 300 masks from the beach at Maitland Bay. Source: Louis O'Neill

“When the containers first went overboard, there were a lot of masks in the water, but this last set of storms brought in a whole wave of new ones,” Mr O’Neill said.

“I’ve picked up a lot in the past and thought we were beyond it, but now there’s a fresh new batch.

“Really, it’s just a tragic state of affairs, we’re trying to look after ourselves, but at what cost?”

Masks littered across a Central Coast beach on Thursday. Source: Louis O'Neill
Masks littered across a Central Coast beach on Thursday. Source: Louis O'Neill

Simple act that could save wildlife

With the COVID-19 infection rate on the rise again, the use of face coverings are becoming an increasingly common sight on our streets, and households could be inadvertently adding another “dangerous item” into the environment.

This week, heartbreaking vision from the UK of a gull with its legs caught in a personal protective equipment mask was shared by the RSPCA, prompting fears it is only a matter of time before Australia’s wildlife face a similar fate.

Wildlife Victoria CEO Megan Davidson told Yahoo News Australia as people in Melbourne were now required to wear face coverings, the government had a role to play a role in ensuring littered masks did not find their way into waterways.

Ms Davidson said the best option to help wildlife was for people to use washable, reusable face coverings, but those using throwaway options should consider their disposal carefully.

She added by simply cutting the elastic ear loops before disposing of masks, Australians could help stop wildlife getting tangled.

Split screen. Left - A gull in England caught with its legs caught in a mask. Right - Close up of gull legs caught in mask.
A gull was tangled in the straps of a disposable mask for a week before being rescued. Source: RSPCA via Storyful

Sadly, she fears not everyone will follow this advice.

“People being people, they won’t always be careful of how they dispose of them,” she said.

“I don’t think the impact on wildlife has been really thought about.

“If we have hundreds of these things washing into the rivers, they’re going to have a significant impact.”

The list of household items harming our wildlife

Animal rescue group WIRES say they are already often called to rescue native creatures entangled in ordinary household items.

Across Australia, birds get caught in fishing line, platypus are strangled by hair ties and reptiles get their heads lodged in drink cans.

A WIRES volunteer uses a tool to capture a snake with its head caught in a can.
A volunteer rescuer works to remove a can from the head of a snake. Source: WIRES

"WIRES is asking members of the public and especially holidaymakers travelling into regional areas to please remember to discard all rubbish responsibly,” a WIRES spokesperson said.

“We regularly receive calls about birds, animals and reptiles being dangerously tangled or trapped by discarded items such as plastic packaging, bottles, fishing lines and even with fishing hooks embedded into them.

“If the animal is still mobile it is at risk of getting trapped somewhere unreachable and will die from either the injuries sustained or starvation.

“By placing rubbish in public bins provided or taking home to your own bins we can work together to ensure better protection for our wildlife.”

Platypus researcher Josh Griffiths holding a platypus above a river.
Platypus researcher Josh Griffiths says platypus are particularly vulnerable to being strangled by elastic items. Source: Josh Griffiths

Senior wildlife ecologist Joshua Griffiths told Yahoo News Australia platypus were particularly vulnerable to items with elastic because of the way they search for food in our muddy waterways.

Mr Griffiths said platypus numbers were believed to be in decline across Australia and any new environmental threats would be a concern.

“The way that platypus forage makes them prone to getting things getting caught over their head and their front legs,” he said.

“Once an item gets caught over the animal, it gets very difficult for them to remove it.

“Those items tend to just chafe and eventually they’ll cut into the flesh underneath.

“So we see some pretty horrific injuries from things like hair ties.”

Plastic masks could remain in environment for generations

Boomerang Alliance campaign manager Toby Hutcheon said while disposable masks may feel paper-like, most have a synthetic component, meaning they could last in the environment for decades.

“Whilst they appear to be paper, they will contain plastics,” Mr Hutcheon said.

“So, anything that’s thrown away, and particularly if it gets littered, it’ll end up in the marine environment.

“Not only is it a problem for wildlife, it means that the plastic is getting into the environment and will eventually break down into microplastics.”

Even when thrown in the bin, waste can inadvertently make its way into the natural environment, and hungry birds are frequent visitors to our rubbish tips.

With the coronavirus likely to be a long-running issue, Mr Hutcheon encourages Australians to buy a reusable mask.

Government advice on coronavirus mask disposal

The federal health department told Yahoo News Australia Australians should be cautious when disposing of their face coverings, but they were free to cut the elastic loops before placing them in a bin.

“In the community (not in a health care situation), for single-use particulate filter respirators and surgical masks, these devices should be responsibly discarded in standard household rubbish and then the person should wash their hands,” a Department of Health spokesperson said in a statement.

“Using alcohol-based hand rub as an alternative to hand washing is sufficient.

“Health has no guidelines on cutting the elastic loops, though people can do that if they choose. They should wash their hands after disposing of the device.

“For ‘manufactured’ (including home sewn) fabric face coverings, these should be washed and reused.

“If they need to be discarded, household rubbish is suitable. But people should follow all the hand hygiene practises as above.

“Anything that is labelled single-use should not be reused.”

The author, Michael Dahlstrom, is a registered wildlife carer in NSW.

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