Environmentalists sounded the alarm over a new type of marine pollution, courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic.
France plans to hike up fines for dropping litter on the streets, after an outcry over images of surgical masks and gloves floating in the ocean.
Brune Poirson, a junior minister for the environment, said the fine would increase from €68 to €135. The penalty will rise to as much as €750 depending on the severity.
"Plastic waste linked to the COVID-19 crisis reminds us that if we want clean oceans, it starts with clear sidewalks," she wrote on Twitter.
The French government's announcement on Sunday came just a day ahead of World Oceans Day and a week after an environmental NGO sounded the alarm over a new type of waste piling on top of the longtime plague of plastic pollution.
Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) released images of one of its recent clean-up operations in the Mediterranean, in which discarded surgical masks and plastic gloves could be seen littering the seabed alongside other rubbish such as empty cups and beer cans.
"It’s only the beginning," the group’s co-founder Joffrey Peltier told Euronews.
Its founder Laurent Lombard, who posted the video, wrote as a caption: “Would you like to take a dip with COVID-19 this summer?”
He went on warning that there could soon be "more masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean".
From the street to the sea
If waste is not properly thrown into a rubbish bin, but on the road or the pavement, it will typically fall into a gutter, mix with rainwater and be washed out into a river or the sea, Peltier explained.
"All it takes is a little wind or rain and everything ends up directly into the sea," he said.
Opération Mer Propre is calling on people to behave responsibly and stop littering the streets. It’s also pleading for a shift away from disposable masks as well as plastic gloves and containers to reduce pollution at the source.
"Of course we need to protect ourselves from COVID-19, but I don’t think plastic is the adequate solution," Peltier said.
"We can wear reusable masks, and wash our hands with soap instead of using hydroalcoholic gel, because we’re now also starting to find these gel bottles in the sea."
Peltier welcomed the idea of raising fines but raised doubts about its enforcement.
"Perhaps, unfortunately, we should create an environmental police force," he said.
Protecting our oceans
Governments and environmental leaders held an online conference about protecting the world's oceans last week.
The five-day Virtual Ocean Dialogues was hosted by the World Economic Forum and Friends of Ocean Action. This year, it focused on fighting water pollution and building a blue economy. It also launched UpLink, a new platform to crowd-source ideas for sustainability projects.
The UN estimates that 13 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean each year and that half of the plastic produced globally is for single-use items.
"The ocean is part of our human health and human wealth," Kristian Teleki, the director of Friends of Ocean Action, told Euronews in a TV interview ahead of the conference.
The sight of discarded masks littering the Med sharply contrasts with more positive pictures of nature seemingly benefiting from coronavirus lockdowns. Residents of Venice have noticed how much cleaner the city’s canals looked in the absence of tourists and boat traffic.
"Some of the things that we’ve seen in Venice give us hope that small changes in behaviour can have a major impact," Teleki said.
You can watch highlights of the interview with Kristian Teleki in the video player above.