Conservationists warn Covid waste may result in 'more masks than jellyfish' in the sea

A diver shows the gloves and masks collected from the ocean.

(CNN)Beaches on the French Côte d'Azur like Cannes or St. Tropez are among the most coveted vacation spots worldwide, but now the coronavirus pandemic has left an abundance of pollutants in the water: discarded masks and gloves.

"How would you like swimming with COVID-19 this summer?" Laurent Lombard, a diver and founder of the nonprofit Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) asked in a Facebook post last month.
His organization has been sounding the alarm about finding discarded PPE and hand sanitizer bottles in their sea cleanup operations, and shared pictures of their findings with CNN.
    Lombard warned on Facebook that "soon there may be more masks than jellyfish" in the Mediterranean sea.

    'We have to take this very seriously'

    Julie Hellec, a spokesperson for Opération Mer Propre, told CNN that the sight of PPE floating in the Mediterranean was a first in 15 years of diving for Lombard.
    "We have to take this very seriously," Hellec said.
    Hellec estimates the Covid waste retrieved during sea cleanups to be less than 5% of the total waste Opération Mer Propre usually collects, but the organization is worried this could escalate rapidly.
    "If someone had alerted us to the problem of plastic bottles and plastic bags from the start, would we have continued?" Hellec said.
    Opération Mer Propre wants to raise awareness on how avoiding littering is crucial to keeping oceans clean. "A simple gesture like not throwing a glove on the ground is to save the planet," Hellec told CNN.
    "Regarding COVID waste, of course we must favor reusable masks and gloves and ban disposable," she added.

    A growing problem

    French beaches are not the only place where Covid waste has been detected.
    In late February, Hong Kong-based organization OceansAsia reported finding "masses of surgical masks washing up on the shoreline" in the Soko Islands.
    Using masks to reduce the spread of germs has been a cultural staple in Asia long before the Covid-19 pandemic, but OceansAsia noted a marked difference.
    "When you suddenly have a population of 7 million people wearing one to two masks per day the amount of trash generated is going to be substantial," they wrote on their website.
    The production of single-use PPE has drastically ramped up during the pandemic. A recent study in the Environment, Science & Technology journal estimates that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month.
    Nick Mallos, a senior director with the nonprofit organization Ocean Conservancy, called these numbers "staggering."
    "In many places around the world the basic waste collection does not exist to manage that volume of waste, so unfortunately we are likely to see that waste finding its way downstream on beaches and in the ocean," Mallos told CNN.
    "Even here in the United States, in the EU, in other places around the world that have robust and sophisticated waste systems, we're still seeing PPE littering roadways, washing down waterways."
    "Unfortunately, trash travels," Mallos added.
    If items like masks and gloves end up in the ocean, species like seabirds and sea turtles might become entangled in them or ingest them, according to Mallos.
    "We know that sea turtles often feed on things like plastic bags and balloons that are in the marine environment, so it's quite likely that we will see a similar type of feeding behavior."
    Mallos stressed how important it is to follow public health guidelines ar