We thought it couldn’t happen in our lifetimes, but it did. Since early 2020, the pandemic continues to rage throughout the world. The good news is that medical researchers have learned more about how the coronavirus works, and researchers are already working on effective vaccines and treatments.
But until that vaccine or cure becomes widely available, the best way to lessen the spread of the virus is to protect ourselves by wearing a face mask. Combined with social distancing, wearing a face mask that covers your nose and mouth and is sealed around the sides can effectively protect you from the virus. The level of coronavirus protection depends on the type of mask being worn.
The Environmental Problem with Improper Face Mask Disposal
Face masks are often disposed of, even washable ones. Unfortunately, this presents a huge environmental problem. Single-use masks are made of lightweight non-woven polypropylene, polycarbonate, polyester, or polyethylene material. While they keep pathogens out, these materials are plastic-based. And as we all know, plastics are non-biodegradable, making their disposal a huge global issue.
Recent disposal and recycling statistics show that face masks have become the new “plastic bottles.” According to an estimate by Green Matters, over 129 billion face masks are thrown every month we deal with the coronavirus. That’s a massive amount that goes to our oceans, which are already oversaturated with plastic waste. Marine animals mistake these masks for food, which leads to entanglement, ingestion, choking, and death.
Masks can also break down to microplastic fibers. When these fish are harvested and prepared for human consumption, those microplastics that they ingested can pass through our bodies, which could have detrimental effects on our health.
Finally, due to safety measures to avert the virus, schedules and funding for recycling programs are postponed. The postponement of these programs has become an impediment to what could have been viable solutions to a hefty environmental problem.
Disposing Face Masks Correctly
Recycling statistics show that about 20 percent of plastics can be recycled. Unfortunately, disposable face masks and surgical masks are meant to be single-use, and thus, are not recyclable. After using them, they need to be disposed of.
Used face masks that are worn in public are considered to be household waste and not subjected to medical waste disposal. To lessen the environmental impact, face masks should be disposed of correctly. Here are the steps on how to do that.
- Single-use masks that have become soiled, damp, crumpled, or soiled must be disposed of immediately.
- Take off the mask from your face carefully. Hold it by the ear loops, not the mask cover itself. Be gentle when you do this to reduce the chances of shaking loose the trapped pathogens.
- Cut off the ear loops with a pair of scissors. Without the ear loops, there are fewer chances of the mask entangling wildlife in case it ends up in the environment.
- Don’t throw the used mask directly into the trash bin. Rather, put it in a sealed plastic bag. You can use a bigger bag to collect a certain volume of face masks. Other disposable items that have been worn by a coronavirus positive person such as gloves should also be placed in the plastic bag.
- Close and seal the plastic bag, then put the bag in the trash bin for the disposal schedule.
- Alternatively, call a service provider that specializes in disposing of hazardous wastes. These providers can handle all types of solid, hazardous, and medical waste disposal.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time you dispose of a mask. It takes 20 seconds for the soap to break down the protective fatty envelope of the virus.
- Medical facilities, hospitals, diagnostic laboratories, and other institutions have different protocols when disposing of masks. Face masks that are worn in medical facilities or those worn by a positive patient should follow medical waste disposal regulations.
Recently, the Department of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other agencies that have jurisdiction on the pandemic have published advisories to reserve surgical, KN95, and other specialized masks to medical personnel. The general public doesn’t need the protection level of specialized masks unless they are taking care of an infected person in the house.
Do you want to improve recycling statistics? Then use cloth masks. You can even make your own from old garments. Or, if you have an artistic inclination, you can design your own as a fashion statement. You can simply wash your cloth mask after each use. Once dry, you can reuse it.
Wearing face masks is needed for our own protection against the coronavirus. However, the massive use and disposal of face masks, which was once relegated only to medical personnel, is straining the environment. Finding solutions such as using cloth masks, conducting information drives, and cleaning up shorelines are needed to ensure a sustainable environment.