Coronavirus pollution: Plastic masks and gloves are already littering the seabed, campaigners warn

Coronavirus pollution: Plastic masks and gloves are already littering the seabed, campaigners warn

Discarded surgical masks and plastic gloves littering the seabed: could this be the new ugly face of our coasts after the coronavirus pandemic?

French environmental NGO Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) is sounding the alarm over a new type of waste piling on top of the longtime plague of plastic pollution.

“It’s only the beginning,” the group’s co-founder Joffrey Peltier told Dailyrater.

Diving near the French Riviera resort of Antibes to clean up the waste, the NGO found face masks and gloves littering the Mediterranean seabed alongside other rubbish such as empty cups and beer cans.

Its founder Laurent Lombard, who posted the video, wrote as a caption: “Would you like to take a dip with COVID-19 this summer?”

He went on warning that there could soon be “more masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean”.

From the street to the sea

If waste is not properly thrown into a rubbish bin, but on the road or the pavement, it will typically fall into a gutter, mix with rainwater and be washed out into a river or the sea, Peltier explained.

“All it takes is a little wind or rain and everything ends up directly into the sea,” he said.

Opération Mer Propre is calling on people to behave responsibly and stop littering the streets. It’s also pleading for a shift away from disposable masks, plastic gloves and containers to reduce pollution at the source.

“Of course we need to protect ourselves from COVID-19, but I don’t think plastic is the adequate solution,” Peltier said.

“We can wear reusable masks, and wash our hands with soap instead of using hydroalcoholic gel, because we’re now also starting to find these gel bottles in the sea.”

A lawmaker in the southern Alpes-Maritimes district, Eric Pauget, has proposed hiking the fine for littering a public place with masks to €300, from the current €68.

Peltier welcomed the idea but raised doubts about its enforcement.

“Perhaps, unfortunately, we should create an environmental police force,” he said.

Protecting our oceans

Governments and environmental leaders are holding an online conference about protecting the world’s oceans this week.

The five-day Virtual Ocean Dialogues is hosted by the World Economic Forum and Friends of Ocean Action. This year, it will focus on fighting water pollution and building a blue economy. It will also launch UpLink, a new platform to crowd-source ideas for sustainability projects.

“My hope is we don’t spend time diagnosing the patient , but we look at solutions and remind ourselves that the ocean (…) is part of our human health and human wealth,” Kristian Teleki, the director of Friends of Ocean Action, told Dailyrater in a live TV interview.

The UN estimates that 13 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean each year and that half of the plastic produced globally is for single-use items.

The sight of discarded masks littering the Med sharply contrasts with more positive pictures of nature seemingly benefiting from coronavirus lockdowns. Residents of Venice have noticed how much cleaner the city’s canals looked in the absence of tourists and boat traffic.

“Some of the things that we’ve seen in Venice give us hope that small changes in behaviour can have a major impact,” Teleki said.

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