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.