Observing the "COVID-19 litter fingerprint"

In 2020 we tracked the proportion of masks, gloves and wipes in collected litter enabling us to observe the impact of COVID-19 related policies and guidance on their occurrence as litter. Here we discuss the difficulties in observing a global phenomenon from lockdown, and how citizen science helped

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We are all now too well aware of the negative impacts that COVID-19 has had on our daily lives. In April 2020, it was beginning to appear that there were some small positives of the decrease in human activity caused by lockdown - with improvements in air quality (fewer vehicles and industries operating), and water quality (fewer ships churning sediment). Reduced human activity also saw reports of animals entering towns and cities. Meanwhile, we began to see reports of masks and gloves appearing on beaches and streets, where they hadn’t been before.

As COVID-19 spread, so did the news reports of this emerging new type of litter. Likewise, national lockdowns made it incredibly difficult to go out and visit these places to evidence what were anecdotal accounts.

Struggling to find ways to catalogue this apparent rise in COVID-19 related litter, the team at the University of Portsmouth pieced together news reports to produce a Conversation article, which went global in  mainstream media. However, we were still struggling to prove the main drivers of this litter.  We realised quickly how hard it was  to carry out research whilst being required to stay at home.

Our paper “Increased mask, glove and wipe litter as a result of COVID-19 measures” recently published in Nature Sustainability evidences the international rise in COVID-19 related litter, all from the solitude of multiple national lockdowns.

The study was based on findings from two novel open source databases: the extensive “COVID-19 Government Response Tracker”, and a litter collection application “Litterati”. Using these databases we were able to map the countries policy responses (lockdown severity, mask policies), and gain a base line of litter proportions from September 2019 through the first 6 months of the pandemic . As the litter data and participant recruitment was not under our control, we were limited to 11 countries, which included a range of COVID-19 policy responses. These 11 countries were France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, UK, Sweden, the USA and Canada, and the isolated island continent of Australia and its neighbour New Zealand.

Over 2 million pieces of litter were collected and tagged in the study period, with masks, gloves, and wipes counted as a proportion of the total collected litter for each month and country. This allowed us to look at the COVID-19 litter trends on a monthly basis. We then matched up the WHO announcements and National policies/ lockdown restrictions to see how this impacted litter proportions.

It wasn’t a surprise to see mask litter appear, but what did surprise us was how national legislation had dramatically impacted the occurrence of  mask litter, increasing over 80 fold across the countries studied. Several countries had little to no occurrences of masks and gloves prior to the pandemic (within this study). The main points are:

  • Jan-Mar  as countries grappled for adequate PPE the guidance was to socially/ physically distance from each other. 
  • Mar-May -The most severe lockdowns were during this period, and as such, mask littering was low but on the increase.
  • Jun-Oct  The WHO recommended the use of masks to help facilitate social interaction. This followed the relaxation of many lockdown measures, and so an increase in people's freedoms. Mask litter increased dramatically within these months.

Glove litter began to appear more often with the announcement of a pandemic, but began to decrease in June and July. This is likely as a result of increasing awareness of the need to wash hands and use masks.

Wipe litter showed some increase as a result of the pandemic, but was commonly littered prior to the pandemic. COVID-19 appeared to increase its occurrence.

What we can't unpick is the differences in mask, glove and litter proportion abundance within the different countries. This is likely a highly complex issue related to pre-existing behaviours, infrastructure and services having a large impact among others.

Overall the study evidences the anecdotal news accounts of COVID-19 relate litter, and shows the impact that legislating the use of items such as masks can have on their occurrence as litter. There is a clear need to ensure that requiring the use of these items is accompanied with education campaigns, and where available support to limit their release into the environment.

Keiron P Roberts

Lecturer, University of Portsmouth

Keiron Roberts is a lecturer in sustainability and built environment within the School of Civil Engineering and Surveying at the University of Portsmouth.

He works within the Research England funded GreenTech South Innovation hub. He is researching disruptive markets and policies to enable the uptake of new renewables, energy storage and market pricing to improve the islands energy autonomy as part of the Innovate UK funded Isle of Wight Energy Autonomous Community project. He is currently coordinating the UNEP IRP marine plastic litter think piece for delivery at the upcoming G20 events.

Keiron is a visiting research fellow at the University of Southampton where he previously held the position of research fellow. He is contributing to two research projects investigating the potential application of the circular economy model within the operations of a large water and wastewater company (Southern Water, ZeroWIN), and part of the continued development of the solid waste infrastructure model of GB within the MISTRAL project (EPSRC funded), with outputs influencing the UK's waste management infrastructure. Prior to his postdoctoral work he completed a PhD funded by EPSRC and the EU FP7 All Gas project, investigating the use of marine micro algae for biogas production.

Keiron is a researcher with expertise in wastewater, solid waste and energy systems and resource management and technologies, with a particular focus on sustainability and the circular economy.

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