COVID-19 Waste Could Trigger Surge in Ocean Pollution As Conservationists Find “More Masks Than Jelly Fish” Afloat

Coronavirus waste ends up in the ocean as conservationists have warned that the coronavirus pandemic could spark a surge in ocean pollution. Too much discarded single-use masks are floating like jellyfish, and waterlogged latex gloves are washing up on shorelines scattered across seabeds and littering them. These are adding to an excess of plastic waste that already threatens marine life.

Opération Mer Propre, the French non-profit whose primary activities include picking up litter along the Côte d’Azur regularly, started sounding the alarm end of the previous month.

Joffrey Peltier of the organization described them as “COVID waste,” considering what divers had found, which includes gloves, masks, and bottles of hand sanitizer in dozens beneath the waves of the Mediterranean, mixed in with the usual litter of disposable cups and aluminum cans.

Though the number of masks and gloves found were far from enormous, said Peltier, after millions globally turned to single-use plastics to fight the coronavirus, he is worried that the discovery pointed towards a new kind of pollution that would soon become ubiquitous. “It’s the promise of pollution to come if nothing is done,” said Peltier. 

France alone, have ordered two billion disposable masks, said Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre. “Knowing that … soon we’ll 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 soiled gloves in the sea near Antibes.

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The images, which the group hopes, will prompt people to embrace reusable masks and swap latex gloves for more frequent handwashing. “With all the alternatives, plastic isn’t the solution to protect us from COVID. That’s the message,” said Peltier.

In the years before the Covid-19 outbreak, environmentalists had already warned of the threat posed to oceans and marine life by skyrocketing plastic pollution. According to a 2018 estimate by the UN Environment, every year, around 13 million tonnes of plastic goes into oceans. Annually, 570,000 tonnes of plastic flow into the Mediterranean, an amount the WWF has described as equal to dumping 33,800 plastic bottles every minute into the sea.

As countries all over the world confront the coronavirus pandemic, these figures’ risk is growing substantially. Masks often contain plastics such as polypropylene, said Éric Pauget, a French politician whose region includes the Côte d’Azur.

“With a lifespan of 450 years, these masks are an ecological timebomb given their lasting environmental consequences for our planet,” he wrote last month in a letter to Emmanuel Macron, calling on the French president to do more to address the environmental consequences of disposable masks.

The Hong Kong-based OceansAsia expressed similar concerns earlier this year, after dozens of disposable masks found in a survey of marine debris in the city’s uninhabited Soko Islands.

“On a beach about 100 meters long, we found about 70,” said Gary Stokes of OceansAsia. One week later, another 30 masks had washed up. “And that’s on an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere.”

He even started checking other nearby beaches being curious to see how far the masks had traveled. “We’re finding them everywhere,” he said. “Ever since society started wearing masks, the cause and effects are being seen on the beaches.”

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However, he speculated that the lightweight masks were, at times, also being carried from land, boats, and landfills by the wind other than some of the debris that could be attributed to carelessness.

“It’s just another item of marine debris,” he said, comparing the masks to plastic bags or straws that often wash up on the city’s more remote shorelines. “It’s no better, no worse, just another item we’re leaving as a legacy to the next generation.” 

And it is more likely that porpoises and dolphins in the region could mistake a mask for food, he was bracing himself for a grim find. “We’re constantly getting them washing up dead and we’re just waiting for a necropsy when we find a mask inside,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable.”

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