Antibes, France

The War on Waste in the Mediterranean

July 18th, 2020.

Joko Peltier used to be an experienced spearfisher in the Mediterranean Sea. But over the years, he noticed he was more often confronted with debris from shore than marine life. So he decided to change tack.
“I don’t hunt fish anymore, I hunt garbage.” 
He and his wife Vivi began combing the shoreline near their home in Antibes, France in 2016. That’s where they met Pascal Calmels and Laurent Lombard, fellow spearfishers-turned-trashfishers from the French Riviera. In July 2019 they all joined forces to create Opération Mer Propre, an NGO with a mission to clean the seas. 
Twice a month they gather a group of volunteers to clean up different beaches on the Riviera. 
Joko Peltier getting ready to dive.
Peltier says the way Opération Mer Propre approaches clean-up missions is similar to the way he used to approach hunting. First, they scout out a number of sites to see which of them needs to be cleaned the most.
“People don’t normally throw their garbage directly into the sea. It falls on the ground, then gets washed into rivers, which flow into the sea.” 

On a Sunday morning this July, a small group of members gathered on the rocky beach at the mouth of the Brague river in Antibes. Normally, Peltier says there would be more of them, but Covid-19 restrictions limited their numbers to 20 — 10 on land, and 10 in the water.

Conditions weren’t ideal. The night before, southern winds agitated the sea, reducing the visibility to less than a meter (3 feet). As a result, teams of free divers were forced upriver, where they could see slightly clearer.
Despite a rough start, the mood was lighthearted. On top of their love for the sea, the members of Opération Mer Propre also seemed to share a fondness for Dad jokes.
Goofing around with another member, Peltier put a mesh bag over his head and yelled “Look I’ve caught some garbage already! It’s a human! The worst garbage of all!”
Once they got to work, their bags filled remarkably quickly. Lombard, a respected figure in the French diving community even before he took on the problem of pollution, pulled out a handful of golf balls. 
“These take 400 years to break down,” he told me.
Twenty minutes later, he was straddling a bicycle from Nice’s bike sharing scheme, which he and another diver pulled from the riverbed. Two photographers eagerly snapped pictures.
Credit - Opération Mer Propre
Credit - Opération Mer Propre
Raising awareness of the Med’s garbage problem is a pillar of Opération Mer Propre’s mission. They do this primarily by sharing images of their “catch” on social media. In early June, the group made headlines around the world after Lombard posted a video showing dozens of surgical masks and latex gloves on the sea floor. They became the first NGO to sound the alarm on a new chapter in the Mediterranean pollution crisis.
“Before Covid-19 we never used to see masks or gloves in the water. Once France came out of lockdown, we saw an increase in the amount of garbage that was washing out to sea,” Lombard says.
Latex gloves are technically biodegradable, but they take up to 5 years to fully break down. Surgical masks are made of a common plastic polymer called polypropylene, which scientists say can take much longer to degrade.
The increase in single-use plastics during the Covid-19 pandemic has NGOs like Opération Mer Propre worried that society is losing ground in the fight against plastic pollution. If even a small part of the additional surgical masks and gloves were to finish in the sea, it could have wide-reaching consequences on biodiversity in the Mediterranean.
“Plastic waste gets fragmented, these fragments enter the food chain, and in the end we end up eating our own garbage,” Lombard says.
While researchers at France’s ocean science institute Ifremer say it’s largely a myth that humans end up eating microplastics through seafood, a recent study published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin found these microscopic plastic fragments in the digestive systems of 58% of sardines and 60% of anchovies analyzed in the western Mediterranean. 
For now, Peltier hopes that Opération Mer Propre can make some headway on land, by opening the public’s eyes to what he calls “le monde invisible,” or the invisible world under the sea. The group’s latest project is transforming a small restaurant Peltier owns in Antibes into a garbage exhibition.
The walls feature artwork by Peltier and Lombard, which they made from debris collected in the Mediterranean — tribal masks made from plastic bottle caps, a barnacle-covered cell phone collection spanning 20 years, jars filled with cigarette butts, even a molecular model of the coronavirus made out of golf balls. 
It’s a shrine to all the garbage that’s no longer sitting on the bottom of the sea thanks to their efforts.
“We want to rediscover the Mediterranean we knew 20-30 years ago,” Lombard says.
Anca and Morade


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