Disposable Masks Are Now Littering the Ocean

Ocean activists in France are concerned about the rise in COVID-19 waste.

dirty medical mask on sand
A dirty medical mask is found on the sand.


Divers and beach walkers in the Côte d'Azur region of France have noticed something disconcerting in recent weeks. Disposable masks are appearing in the water and on the sand, the kind that so many people are now wearing to prevent transmission of COVID-19. It's an alarming discovery and, while the masks are not yet showing up in huge quantities, Joffrey Peltier of the non-profit Opération Mer Propre said in the Guardian that it's "the promise of pollution to come if nothing is done."

While masks may have a more noble purpose than, say, a plastic drinking straw or a bag that was used to carry home groceries by someone who didn't bother to bring a reusable, the fact remains that they're still plastic-based single-use products that, being lightweight and ubiquitous, are bound to end up in waterways and oceans. The same goes for disposable gloves and bottles of hand sanitizer, all of which are showing up in the Mediterranean Sea and are now referred to loosely as "COVID waste." 

Another member of Opération Mer Propre, Laurent Lombard, posted on Facebook that people will "spend their summer swimming with COVID-19" and that, due to France's recent order of two billion disposable masks from China (a country that's currently exporting four billion masks per month), "soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean."

The Guardian reported that one French politician, Éric Pauget, who represents the Côte d'Azur, is taking some action against this waste. Pauget sent a letter to President Emmanuel Macron, urging him to understand the severity of the waste crisis that COVID-19 has brought on. There's a worrisome health component:

"The presence of a potentially contaminating virus on the surface of these masks thrown on the ground, represents a serious health threat for public cleaners and children who could accidentally touch them." 

Then there's the fact that they contain polypropylene nanoparticles that may protect humans in the short term, but have a lasting effect on ecosystems and biodiversity. The masks have an estimated life span of 450 years in the natural environment, making them "veritable ecological time bombs." Marine animals will likely ingest floating masks, mistaking them for food, and Gary Stokes of OceansAsia thinks it's only a matter of time until masks start showing up in necropsies. 

The solution? Pauget thinks France could produce fully biodegradable hemp masks, especially since it is the second largest producer of hemp (after China) and produces one quarter of the annual global harvest. He told Macron,

"I invite you to set up a public awareness campaign concerning the wearing and responsible use of these masks, and to support ecological design initiatives for 'green masks', ultimately aligning more fully with France's environmental concerns."

Peltier of Opération Mer Propre would like to see a similar shift away from plastic-based disposables, toward better and more environmentally-friendly alternatives, such as reusable cloth masks (which can be laundered regularly) and more frequent handwashing instead of latex gloves. "With all the alternatives, plastic isn’t the solution to protect us from COVID. That’s the message."

The Centers for Disease Control and Protection have said that, while cloth masks and simple cloth face coverings are not a replacement for N-95 respirators or surgical masks, which should be saved for frontline health workers, they do "slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others." Nor are gloves considered necessary unless one is cleaning or caring for an ill person; the CDC recommends handwashing above all.

It's important that a health crisis not be allowed to turn into an ecological crisis if there are workarounds. Part of this means rejecting the assumption that we must embrace single-use products without question, when a reusable item or less damaging practice such as handwashing can do just as good a job, too. The same goes for shopping bags and the insistence that nobody can bring reusable bags into a store anymore (at least, that's the rule here in Canada). Contrary to what petrochemical companies would have us believe, there is no evidence that plastic slows transmission of the virus; it can live on any surface and the only way to ensure transmission does not occur is to sanitize surfaces.

We'll have enough to remind us of this strange COVID chapter in years to come; we won't need heaps of dirty masks along coastlines and in oceans to help keep that memory alive.