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A stranded plastic pollution researcher maps COVID litter in her backyard

It is a very long way from Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska, to Toronto. And for anyone studying environmental issues, those two locations are also worlds apart. 

Marine biologist Justine Ammendolia was supposed to spend her summer field season on the remote island researching the effect of plastic pollution on seabirds. But her plans were cancelled due to COVID-19.

So instead of voluntary isolation in Alaska, she found herself accidentally stranded in her old neighbourhood in the west end of Toronto. She put her research skills to good use though, and came up with the idea to study COVID pollution. 

Ammendolia left her Toronto home at the age of 18 to go to school to become a scientist. She acknowledges that a decade later it is the last place she thought she would be doing environmental research. However, in the early stages of the pandemic, Ammendolia and her partner, fellow plastic pollution researcher Jackie Saturno, turned their evening walks around the neighbourhood into a study of what they were seeing on the ground; discarded personal protective equipment (PPE).

COVID litter is abundant in places like this grocery store parking lot in Toronto. (Justine Ammendolia)

“We’d spot a facemask here, a disposable glove there, and it becomes a pattern over the course of days where we’re not able to keep track of all this new litter that’s popping up that’s related to the pandemic” said Ammendolia. “It was just alarming how quickly it was starting to build up and accumulate.”

Making a COVID litter map

The pair decided to launch a scientific survey of the COVID refuse in their neighbourhood. This included parking lots, fields, school yards and the local river valley, all within about a five kilometre radius of their apartment. They made a geo-tagged map of all the COVID litter they found, including masks, mostly the blue surgical variety, nitrile and vinyl gloves, and antiseptic wipes, in order to understand its prevalence and distribution. 

Ammendolia was astounded by how much they found. “Over the course of four weeks, we ended up picking up thirteen hundred pieces of litter. And to put that in perspective, this is two people only going for daily walks around a very, very small corner of this country. So if you can imagine what other cities look like and other places around Canada, it’s a lot of garbage.”

What to do with used PPE

Ammendolia suspects that one of the reasons the material is improperly discarded is that people are not sure what to do with COVID litter. She said that might help explain the creative places they found COVID litter, including tied to bus shelters or hanging from bike racks. The City of Toronto guidelines suggest that masks, gloves and wipes be tied securely in a bag then placed in the garbage. PPE is not recyclable or compostable.

Used masks turn up just about anywhere. (Jacquelyn Saturno)

It might, however, pose a human heath risk.

“It was shown very early on in the pandemic that COVID can actually stay on a type of plastic, polypropylene, for up to three days,” said Ammendolia. “So as you can imagine, a mask that someone’s wearing intimately for several hours has water droplets that, if they’re COVID-positive, could potentially remain there.”

COVID litter is harmful to wildlife

The threat of COVID litter to human health is not Ammendolia’s only concern. It also fits in with her research focus on plastic pollution in the environment. Surgical masks, in particular, can release plastic micro-fibres which are of great concern as a persistent and not well understood threat to wildlife. And the masks pose other threats as well.

“The surgical masks have little loops or elastics on the end where you put them on your ears. And it’s been shown from people sharing reports on social media that different types of birds get tangled up in them,” Ammendolia said.

COVID litter poses a serious threat to wildlife. (Justine Ammendolia)

Members of the public can also participate in this study by way of citizen science technology. Ammendolia and Saturno use a mobile app called Marine Debris Tracker. It enables anyone with a cell phone to record where the garbage is located, anywhere in the world.

Ammendolia thinks this means the study can be expanded.

“We created the project being socially relevant in Toronto, but then we’ve actually asked our colleagues around the world to highlight it. And so far we’re running it in over 10 cities with the intention to see how widespread and pervasive this is.” 

A summer in Alaska studying the impact of plastic pollution on seabirds would have no doubt produced valuable research. But studying COVID pollution on the streets of Toronto in these times may have long lasting significance and far reaching implications. 

“The goal is really to map it out in a structured way where we understand where it’s likely to end up so that we can better inform policymakers to employ policies that would act as the middle stage in the process of pollution,” said Ammendolia. 

Written and produced by Mark Crawley

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