Face masks and other equipment meant to protect against coronavirus are polluting our oceans
07/23/2020 // Franz Walker // Views

The fight against the ongoing Wuhan coronavirus pandemic seems to have had an unintended but worrying environmental consequence. Improperly disposed of personal protective equipment (PPE) is now finding its way into the world’s oceans.

Nonprofit group Operation Mer Propre – French for “Operation Clean Sea” – is warning that there could now be “more masks than jellyfish” in some of the world’s most popular diving destinations. More importantly, the nonprofit is stating that this could just be the beginning of a coronavirus waste problem.

PPE pollution in the oceans slowly building up

Operation Mer Propre, which conducts underwater clean-up operations in a number of beaches and dive spots along the French Riviera, is saying that discarded PPE has not become a problem of massive proportions, yet. It so far only represents five percent of all the waste the group collects during its clean-up dries.

The group warns, however, that the amount is likely to increase the more the world relies on singles-use masks, gloves and even bottles of hand sanitizer.

“If someone had alerted us to the problem of plastic bottles and plastic bags from the start, would we have continued?” Julie Hellec, a spokeswoman for Operation Mer Propre, told CNN.

According to Hellec, this year was the first time in the 15 years she’d been working with the group that she found discarded PPE during one of her clean-up dives.

For its part, the nonprofit now wants to raise awareness on how avoiding carelessly throwing PPEs away is crucial to keeping the oceans clean.


“A simple gesture like not throwing a glove on the ground is to save the planet,” said Hellec.

In addition, she also encouraged people to use reusable PPE over disposable ones, even going as far as to call for a ban on the latter.

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

Alarms about ocean pollution from PPEs have been raised before

This isn’t the first time that Operation Mer Propre has raised alarms about the dangers of ocean pollution from improperly disposed of PPEs. Last month, the nonprofit’s Joffrey Peltier also made a similar warning after an increase of improperly discarded PPEs such as facemasks was found during clean up dives along the Cote d’Azur.

In addition, other groups have also made similar warnings. Earlier this year, the nonprofit OceansAsia found discarded disposable masks along the beaches of Soko Island in Hong Kong.

“On a beach about 100 meters long, we found about 70,” said OceansAsia’s Gary Stokes. “And that’s on an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere.”

Following this, Stokes checked other beaches in the area where he found a similar number of discarded masks.

“We’re finding them everywhere,” he said. “Ever since society started wearing masks, the cause and effects are being seen on the beaches.”

PPE pollution made worse by the problematic basic waste collection

With the global pandemic continuing to spread and the demand for PPEs continuing to grow, pollution from PPEs is a problem that people will have to face. According to some experts, however, this problem is made worse by the lack of proper waste collection in a number of places around the globe.

“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,” said Nick Mallow, a senior director with the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy.

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

Despite the challenges the ongoing pandemic places on top of an already growing garbage problem, experts are optimistic that this moment will help generate more awareness on the importance of good waste management.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Erin Simon, the pandemic will emphasize the importance of continuing work on addressing the garbage problem. Simon says that this moment puts into perspective the importance of individual actions towards reducing global garbage output.

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

Learn more about how the coronavirus is changing our planet at Pandemic.news.

Sources include:



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