French nonprofit warns 'COVID waste' could harm the environment

As COVID-19 lockdown restrictions start to ease in France, more people are hitting the beaches in the south — and they're leaving behind litter.

In addition to the usual fast-food wrappers, plastic bottles, and cigarette butts littered across the Côte D'Azur, beach-goers may now find the waste of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, a group of marine divers of the French nonprofit group, Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea), discovered single-use masks and latex gloves in the waters of Antibes, a beach town on the Mediterranean Sea coast.

The group, which routinely clears litter from bodies of water in France, was granted access to beaches to restart cleaning as soon as confinement measures started relaxing in France on May 11, said Joko Peltier, one of the cofounders.

The team found five masks and four pairs of gloves one day. The next day, eight masks and six pairs of gloves.

"It's not a lot," Peltier told The World in French. "But the moment lockdown restrictions started easing up [in Antibes], and the waste was thrown on the ground, it all ended up in the sea the next day."

In a Facebook video shared nearly 5,000 times, Laurent Lombard, another cofounder of OMP, scuba dives into the bed of the French Mediterranean, picking up tossed gloves and surgical masks. It looks like an eerie caution against this "future pollution of COVID waste," as Peltier calls it.

Éric Pauget, a member of parliament who represents the region, agrees. He wrote to French President Emmanuel Macron urging the interior minister to issue fines of 300 euros, or about $332, to those who litter their protective equipment in public places. Used, thrown away masks are not only an environmental risk, he wrote, but a health concern during the pandemic.

"The presence of the virus potentially contaminates the surface of these thrown away masks," Pauget wrote. "This presents a serious health threat to public cleaners and to children who could accidentally touch them. In addition, the friable polypropylene nanoparticles making up these masks that protect humans risk a lasting effect on our ecosystems and their biodiversity."




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