‘A new type of pollution’: Covid-19 waste ending up in world’s oceans

Personal protevtive equipment such as facemaks and gloves is making its way into the world's seas and oceans, a French environmental group has warned.
Personal protevtive equipment such as facemaks and gloves is making its way into the world's seas and oceans, a French environmental group has warned. © Opération Mer Propre / France 24

The Covid-19 crisis is leading to a new source of pollution as personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves and facemasks, makes its way into the world’s seas and oceans, a French environmental group has warned.

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Opération Mer Propre says its divers are increasingly finding PPE floating in the waters off the French coast as the use of such items surges in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s completely new. We didn’t have this before. It was exceptional to find a glove and I had never seen a mask before,” Laurent Lombard, founder of Opération Mer Propre, told Reuters.

“For a month now, we’re starting - since it’s just the beginning - to see these masks. It’s a new type of pollution.”

Although the PPE waste may end up in the sea, it is a problem that begins on land in towns and cities, the group says.

“If people weren’t throwing masks on the street, we wouldn’t find them in the sea, since 80 percent of the trash that we see in the sea comes from the land,” said Lombard.

“When it rains the trash is taken away by rainwaters and they end up in the sea through rivers and valleys.”

Waste from PPE has become a growing problem as the wearing of facemasks and gloves becomes a common sight in countries across the world, so much so that France recently increased fines for PPE littering from €68 to €135.

Although Opération Mer Propre says PPE makes up less than one percent of the waste it has collected in the past month, it warns the problem could increase as the pandemic drags on, adding to the already substantial levels of waste in the world’s seas and oceans where an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped every year, according to the WWF.

“The message is really to throw your masks in trash bins. It’s good for the environment - don’t throw it on the ground, otherwise, it ends up in the sea,” said Lombard. “It’s a matter of common sense.”

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