• Pollution The Government will establish a tax on plastic containers to limit their use

  • Research Fish addicted to plastic

Two billion surgical masks were bought by the French government when Laurent Lombard, co-founder of Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea), launched his particular SOS from the town of Antibes, on the Côte d'Azur: "Soon there may be more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean".

It was the month of May 2020, and the divers began to detect the insidious presence of a residue until then practically unusual, but increasingly visible on the shores and on the seabed: "It is something completely new, all those masks. And it is something that is just beginning, a new type of pollution that reaches our seas. "

Until then, the big problem was single-use bottles and packaging.

It is estimated that up to 570,000 tons of plastic enter the Mediterranean every year, the equivalent of 33,800 bottles per minute.

On a global scale, the proportion increases to eight million metric tons per year (some estimates already speak of 29 million tons in 2040).

If this trend continues, by the middle of the century there may be more plastic than fish in our seas.

At least that is the warning that scientists have been throwing up to now.

What no one had foreseen was this tide of masks rivaling the jellyfish,

threatening marine fauna and birds, and putting our own health at risk in the long term because they can take up to 450 years to decompose

, and end up doing it in the form of microplastics that can enter the food chain.

Because as Lombard rightly warns,

"if people didn't throw them out on the street, they wouldn't get here, because

80% of the waste that ends up in the oceans comes from the mainland and is washed into rivers by rain."

The solution?

"Use reusable masks and alternatives to plastic. And

if there is no choice but to use surgical ones, put them in the trash or in a specific bin

. But never throw them on the ground, or drop them. It's a matter of common sense."

At least 1.56 billion masks may have ended up in the oceans by 2020, according to estimates by the organization OceansAsia.

This is a downward calculation, around 3% of the 52,000 million units that are estimated to have been manufactured throughout the year.

Mask collection in the Soko Islands (Hong Kong) OCEANSASIA

Another estimate, published in

Environmental Science and Technology

, shoots the number to 129 billion masks each month.

After all, the manufacture of

disposable face


has possibly been the business of the year: from 660 million euros invoiced in 2019 to 137,000 million in the year of Covid, according to the consulting firm Grand View Research.

As far as the Soko Islands, near Hong Kong, the first wave arrived.

British photographer and diver Gary Stoke, who fueled his passion for the sea in the Mediterranean, has led OceansAsia's regular expeditions to distant beaches and in search of masks.

He himself exhibits them before the camera as if they were a fishing trophy on the shore.

The beaches, he warns, are like the breakwater of our civilization.

The waste ends up reaching them like the remains of a shipwreck.

It was to be expected that this return to "use and throw" promoted by the ovid would end up becoming more and more palpable and visible.

They started by collecting 70 masks a day, "but last month we reached 150 in just one hour," says

Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at OceansAsia.

"And what is more worrying, we are seeing them decompose into smaller parts, partially broken or with algae growing around them."

Threatened fauna

This is happening in remote beaches, where there is practically no human "stain".

The worrying signals have been around the world in recent months: from the Great Lakes in Canada to the coasts of Brazil, where last September a dead Magellanic penguin was found on Juquey beach, in São Sebastião.

An autopsy revealed that he had swallowed an N95 respirator mask.

"It is probably the first animal killed by pandemic garbage that we have evidence of," acknowledged Hugo Gallo Neto, president of the Argonauta Institute, a local NGO.

"We are facing unequivocal proof of the damage and mortality that this type of waste generates in marine fauna. We have been detecting the appearance of masks on our coasts for some time.

This is an inefficient policy problem

to prevent garbage from ending up in the sea.

And also a problem due to the lack of greater education for the population

, starting with the schools. "

Many disposable masks end up in the sea

"Masks are in any case the tip of the iceberg", we return with Teale Phelps Bondaroff, from OceansAsia.

"We are talking about an estimate of 6,240 metric tons in the sea in 2020, compared to the eight million tons of plastics that enter the oceans every year."

"What is clear is that the masks are obvious because of their novelty, because they are medical waste that we were not used to seeing, and in that sense they can serve to end this blindness to garbage on our coasts", warns the researcher and Canadian academic.


the root of the problem is our addiction to single-use plastic, which ends up finding its way to the sea



The same recipe for single-use plastics should be applied, according to Phelps Bondaroff, to the problem of surgical masks that commonly use polymers such as polypropylene or polyethylene: "Citizens must reduce their consumption to a minimum and get rid of them in a way And governments and companies must adopt measures, promote innovation, seek sustainable alternatives, as in the case of reusable and even compostable masks that are already being manufactured. "


"One thing that people often don't understand is that plastic doesn't disappear when it enters the environment,"

emphasizes OceansAsia's research director.

"What's more, it breaks down little by little until it reaches microplastics, which are particularly insidious because they can reach the food chain. Microplastics

absorb toxins, they bioaccumulate in animals, especially predators, and they reach our plates"


Governments have begun to take action on the matter with awareness campaigns, distribution of buckets for medical waste or imposing

exemplary fines

for throwing masks.

In France, without going any further, they can go from 135 to 750 euros depending on the "severity" of the offense, and starting from an irrefutable fact: a clean sea begins with clean sidewalks.

The Sultanate of Oman has been among the first to offer a national program for the safe removal of masks, seeing it as a double threat to public health and the environment.

In the United Kingdom, associations such as A Plastic Planet or Surfers Against Sewage (promoters of the Costas sin Plasticos initiative) have turned their efforts in recent months in the fight against "pandemic garbage".

"The problem is even more pressing because the masks

not only appear on the beaches, but nobody picks them up due to the perception of added risk,"

warns Martin Dorey, founder of 2 Minute Beach Clean Project.

Sander Defruyt, of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, emphasizes how surgical masks are a challenge to the productive responsibility laws that are being introduced from the slipstream of the circular economy: "Other than burning them, there is little that can be done with them. designed to end up directly as waste. "

According to a study by University College London, if the 66 million Britons used a surgical mask per day, 124,000 tons of waste would be generated per year (the equivalent of 10,000 double-decker buses).

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has for its part promoted the Snip the straps campaign to encourage the British to at least cut the elastic straps of the masks before disposing them, to avoid incidents of sea ​​birds with their legs caught.

In Spain, just at the start of the pandemic, 659 million surgical masks were purchased, the equivalent of 1,300 tons of plastic "deposited in landfills, burned in incinerators or dumped directly into the environment," as Julio Barea, head of waste, recalls of Greenpeace in our country.

"We cannot protect human health without a healthy environment," emphasizes Barea.

"It all started with the madness of plastic gloves and little by little it moved towards single-use masks," emphasizes Barea.

"It is incredible to think that they are designed to be used for four hours and then discarded

. And the bad thing is that the Covid has also meant a return to the culture of" use and throw away. "In Galicia, for example, a rise has been detected 25% of plastic packaging in recycling bins. "

"Fortunately, there are already quite a few reusable mask alternatives on the market, made with more environmentally friendly materials, which can be washed and disinfected up to forty times," warns Barea.

"Surgical masks should not be used except in cases of strict necessity. Once the


phase has


we should start thinking about circuits for collecting waste associated with Covid. And in the case of masks, remove VAT and in exchange for a Deposit price, with a "return" system in pharmacies, for example. I am sure that this way we would see a lot less masks thrown on the streets, or abandoned in carelessness. "

According to the criteria of The Trust Project

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