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Conservationists warn Covid waste may result in ‘more masks than jellyfish’ in the sea

Andrew Cuomo

Beaches on the French Côte d’Azur like Cannes or St. Tropez are among the most coveted vacation spots worldwide, but now the coronavirus pandemic has left an abundance of pollutants in the water: discarded masks and gloves.

“How would you like swimming with COVID-19 this summer?” Laurent Lombard, a diver and founder of the nonprofit Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) asked in a Facebook post last month.

His organization has been sounding the alarm about finding discarded PPE and hand sanitizer bottles in their sea cleanup operations, and shared pictures of their findings with CNN.

Lombard warned on Facebook that “soon there may be more masks than jellyfish” in the Mediterranean sea.

‘We have to take this very seriously’

Julie Hellec, a spokesperson for Opération Mer Propre, told CNN that the sight of PPE floating in the Mediterranean was a first in 15 years of diving for Lombard.

“We have to take this very seriously,” Hellec said.

Hellec estimates the Covid waste retrieved during sea cleanups to be less than 5% of the total waste Opération Mer Propre usually collects, but the organization is worried this could escalate rapidly.

“If someone had alerted us to the problem of plastic bottles and plastic bags from the start, would we have continued?” Hellec said.

Opération Mer Propre wants to raise awareness on how avoiding littering is crucial to keeping oceans clean. “A simple gesture like not throwing a glove on the ground is to save the planet,” Hellec told CNN.

“Regarding COVID waste, of course we must favor reusable masks and gloves and ban disposable,” she added.

RELATED: Coronavirus is causing a flurry of plastic waste. Campaigners fear it may be permanent

A growing problem

French beaches are not the only place where Covid waste has been detected.

In late February, Hong Kong-based organization OceansAsia reported finding “masses of surgical masks washing up on the shoreline” in the Soko Islands.

Using masks to reduce the spread of germs has been a cultural staple in Asia long before the Covid-19 pandemic, but OceansAsia noted a marked difference.

“When you suddenly have a population of 7 million people wearing one to two masks per day the amount of trash generated is going to be substantial,” they wrote on their website.

The production of single-use PPE has drastically ramped up during the pandemic. A recent study in the Environment, Science & Technology journal estimates that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month.

Nick Mallos, a senior director with the nonprofit organization Ocean Conservancy, called these numbers “staggering.”

“In many places around the world the basic waste collection does not exist to manage that volume of waste, so unfortunately we are likely to see that waste finding its way downstream on beaches and in the ocean,” Mallos told CNN.

“Even here in the United States, in the EU, in other places around the world that have robust and sophisticated waste systems, we’re still seeing PPE littering roadways, washing down waterways.”

“Unfortunately, trash travels,” Mallos added.

If items like masks and gloves end up in the ocean, species like seabirds and sea turtles might become entangled in them or ingest them, according to Mallos.

“We know that sea turtles often feed on things like plastic bags and balloons that are in the marine environment, so it’s quite likely that we will see a similar type of feeding behavior.”

RELATED: He’s doing the ‘dirty work’ to keep plastic out of the ocean

Mallos stressed how important it is to follow public health guidelines around the use of PPE, while cutting back on plastic products for which there are safe and suitable alternatives, like take out containers or plastic bags.

“We have to be serious about reducing the amount of single use plastics in our society where it is appropriate, while at the same time, ensuring we have the appropriate systems to manage the waste generated from lifesaving materials like personal protective equipment,” Mallos argued.

Reusing containers and bags when possible is another great option. A statement signed on Monday by over 100 scientists from around the world, and environmental protection groups like Greenpeace USA, says that reusable products “can be used safely by employing basic hygiene,” like washing them properly.

New challenges

Mallos and others are optimistic that this moment will help generate even more awareness about the importance of proper waste management and of making environmentally conscious decisions. That’s something conservationists have worked hard over the years to get people, governments and businesses on board with.

Erin Simon, who leads the packaging and material science program at WWF, told CNN that even though the pandemic presents new challenges for environmental conservation, it’ll actually emphasize the importance of continuing this work.

“I think individuals should stay the course and they should keep doing their part in this,” Simon told CNN.

It might feel overwhelming to tackle Covid waste on top of the plastic waste humans typically produce. That’s because humans produce an estimated 8 million tons per year, or one full dump truck a minute ending up in the ocean, according to a World Economic Forum study. But according to Simon, the moment puts in perspective the importance of individual actions.

“Not one of us owns the solution. We all have to work together and each of us has a unique role to play,” Simon said.

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