How to Safely Dispose of Face Masks

They’re slowly but surely being made mandatory in places where sufficient social distancing isn’t possible. Face masks are no longer just an optional extra to protect from the COVID 19 virus, they will soon be ubiquitous in communal settings which inevitably means many of cheaply bought, single-use kinds will become dangerous litter. It is estimated that 200 billion face masks and gloves are being littered every month around the world.

Can face masks harm the environment?

Any waste which doesn’t naturally decompose or isn’t biodegradable is a threat to the surroundings of where it is discarded. In the case of face masks it is particularly irresponsible as they will be contaminated with bacteria of the person wearing it and leaving it to be picked up by someone else immediately puts them at risk of coming into contact with infectious microorganisms.

From an environmental perspective face masks are a pollution when thrown away in streets, parks and public areas because they contain plastic, which can harm wildlife and end up in waterways. In a recent report from The Guardian into coronavirus waste, conservationist Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre forecasted there would be “more masks than jellyfish” washing up on shores before long. This is also down to people flushing them down the toilet, which is another incorrect method of disposal.

What is the right way to dispose of face masks?

You should not attempt to place any material from a face mask into your recycling bin or any recycling bin. This not only compromises the other waste it comes into contact with but then has to be separated by essential workers sorting through it.

As with other household waste which may be contaminated if you have the COVID-19 virus, single-use face masks being disposed of should be placed in a rubbish bag which is then bagged again and secured tightly. This should be kept separate from the waste of neighbours who may not be carrying the virus.

If you do not to your knowledge have any symptoms of COVID-19 then single-use masks should be disposed of as soon as they become damp, according to guidance from the World Health Organisation. Make sure to first clean your hands thoroughly, then remove the mask from behind your ears using the elasticated strings, put it straight into a general waste bin and close the lid. Then wash your hands again with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.

Since they cannot be recycled currently, these disposable face masks will sadly go straight to landfill and are predicted to even become the new plastic bottle. You can help the environment by opting instead to spend a little more on a cloth face mask which can be reused as long as it is machine-washed regularly. These are available to buy everywhere and come in a variety of designs so that you can at least put your personal stamp on doing your bit for the world and all the people in it.