Conservationists have warned the coronavirus pandemic could spark spikes in marine pollution – adding to a flood of plastic waste that is already threatening marine life – after finding disposable masks floating on the ocean floor like jellyfish and soaked latex gloves .
The French non-profit Opération Mer Propre, whose activities include the regular collection of rubbish along the Côte d’Azur, sounded the alarm late last month.
Divers had found what Joffrey Peltier of the organization called “Covid Waste” – dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer under the waves of the Mediterranean mixed with the usual waste of disposable cups and aluminum cans.
The amount of masks and gloves found was anything but enormous, said Peltier. However, he feared the discovery pointed to a new type of pollution that would become ubiquitous after millions of people around the world turned to single-use plastics to fight the coronavirus. “It’s pollution’s promise to come if nothing is done,” Peltier said.
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In France alone, the authorities have ordered two billion disposable masks, said Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre. “Knowing that … soon we run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean,” he wrote on social media alongside a video of a dive showing algae-entangled masks and dirty gloves in the sea near Antibes .
The group hopes the images will encourage people to hug reusable masks and swap latex gloves for more frequent hand washing. “With all alternatives, plastic is not the solution to protect us from Covid. That’s the message, ”said Peltier.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, environmentalists warned of the threats to oceans and marine life from exploding plastic pollution. According to a 2018 estimate by the UN Environment, up to 13 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year. In the Mediterranean, 570,000 tons of plastic flow into it every year – an amount that the WWF has described as equivalent to throwing 33,800 plastic bottles into the sea every minute.
These numbers could increase significantly as countries around the world face the coronavirus pandemic. Masks often contain plastics like polypropylene, said Éric Pauget, a French politician whose region includes the Côte d’Azur.
Gloves, masks and bottles of hand disinfectant were collected on the French Côte d’Azur. Photo: Courtesy Operation Terre-Mer
“With a lifespan of 450 years, these masks are an ecological time bomb given their permanent environmental impact on our planet,” he wrote in a letter to Emmanuel Macron last month, urging the French President to do more to address the environmental impact of single-use masks .
Earlier this year, Hong Kong-based OceansAsia raised similar concerns after an investigation into sea debris on the city’s uninhabited Soko Islands revealed dozens of disposable masks.
“We found about 70 on a 100-meter-long beach,” said OceansAsia’s Gary Stokes. A week later, another 30 masks had washed up. “And that’s on an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere.”
Curious to see how far the masks had traveled, he began checking out other nearby beaches. “We can find them everywhere,” he said. “Since society has been wearing masks, the causes and effects can be seen on the beaches.”
While some of the debris was due to neglect, he speculated that the light masks were also worn at times by the wind from land, boats, and landfills.
“It’s just another piece of sea debris,” he said, likening the masks to plastic bags or straws that often wash up on the city’s more remote shores. “It’s no better, no worse, just another item to bequeath to the next generation.”
Given the likelihood of harbor porpoises and dolphins mistaking a mask for food in the area, he prepared for a grim find. “We keep washing them up and just wait for an autopsy if we find a mask on them,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable.”