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French eco groups warn against mask sea pollution

Non-biodegradable surgical masks and latex gloves used in the fight against Covid-19 are already polluting the Mediterranean coast in France, with the problem only just beginning, anti-pollution groups have warned.

A video filmed by anti-sea pollution association Opération Mer Propre (“Operation Clean Sea”), published on Facebook this week, shows that the coast of Antibes (Alpes-Maritimes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur) is already suffering from a sharp rise in pollution from these medical items.

Association founder and activist Laurent Lombard, who posted the video, wrote: “Would you like to take a dip with Covid-19 this summer?” 

He continued: “It is the responsibility of each of us to avoid this new pollution, but also that of our elected officials, MPs, and public might be time to order to solve this new pollution as quickly and decisively as possible.”

He added that these masks and gloves were “only the beginning”, and said: “When a big storm comes, all of the masks and gloves thrown on the pavements and sewers are going to end up in the sea.

“As we know that more than two billion disposable masks were ordered [during the Covid-19 crisis], soon there is a major risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean.”

Surgical masks can pose a considerable environmental risk, as they contain the non-biodegradable material polypropylene, and can take up to 400 years to decompose.


Recycling solutions

The video comes as several politicians have called for a better solution to the issue.

At the beginning of May, junior minister of ecology Damien Adam suggested the “organisation of a pick-up and recycling line” to “ensure the reuse of masks that would allow us to avoid a huge waste of material”.

Similarly, Eric Pauget MP last week proposed a bill for fines for littering to rise from €68 to €300, specifically to help address the problem of people throwing away non-recyclable face masks.

He also asked for the use of video surveillance to enable offenders to be punished at the scene and called for municipal police officers to have the power to carry out identity checks in the street.

Read more: French MP wants €300 fine for mask littering

He said: “Each of these pieces of scattered waste not disposed of in accordance with the Environmental Code is a nuisance or pollution which constitutes a significant cost on many levels for the community.”

NGO ZeroWaste has also called for a reduction in the use of non-washable equipment in the fight against the pandemic.

It said: “Using disposable [materials], due to the emergency at the start of the health crisis, appears to have become the new normal, without any questions being asked about what alternatives exist.”

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