They are becoming the new norm and they are trashing the planet, here's a look at How To Dispose Of Masks And Gloves Responsibly!
And yet we continue to harm the natural world by littering and having a complete disregard for nature and the people who clean up after us! It’s so infuriating. We can do better! And we must do better.
According to a new report from ACS Publications Environmental Science & Technology journal, humans are globally using and disposing of an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves every single month that we deal with COVID-19.
In a recent interview with the BBC Doug Cress, Vice President of Conservation for ocean protection organization Ocean Conservancy said:
“It’s important to understand we had a tremendously grave crisis before the pandemic even started in terms of plastic waste in the ocean. And now you can take the global pandemic. At the current rate, we’re putting 129 billion — I’m saying billion — face masks into the environment every single month. [And] 65 billion plastic gloves into the environment every single month. A significant portion of those would be disposed of improperly and wind up in the ocean.”
“The glove or the mask that you take off and you casually disregard because you think it was safe for that day could easily be the glove or the mask that kills a whale,” Cress added.
The news is constantly filled with new reports of whales and dolphins washing ashore and dying, with necropsy results showing that consumption of plastic waste was the cause of death.
"Understand that the simple human act of indifference or of safety may have a tremendously deleterious effect on the other end", Cress added.
Gary Stokes, the co-founder of OceansAsia flagged this issue back in February when he posted photos of masks on the beach in Hong Kong stating in an interview:
"The way I see these masks in the environment is just another addition to the ever-growing marine debris crisis our oceans are facing. No better, no worse, just shouldn’t be there in the first place. I’m waiting to hear of the first necropsy that finds masks inside a dead marine animal. It’s not a question of if, but when."
Hong Kong is not the only country seeing this harmful trend.
The Guardian reported that one French politician, Éric Pauget, who represents the Côte d'Azur, is taking some action against this waste. Pauget sent a letter to President Emmanuel Macron, urging him to understand the severity of the waste crisis that COVID-19 has brought on. There's a worrisome health component:
"The presence of a potentially contaminating virus on the surface of these masks thrown on the ground represents a serious health threat for public cleaners and children who could accidentally touch them."
It’s happening here in Canada as well. Many bloggers have been documenting this disturbing trend.
The obvious issue with this "COVID waste" is litter, but it’s important to note that these lightweight, ubiquitous, single-use items are made from…you guessed it.. plastic… they are synthetic, non-biodegradable materials, that take hundreds of years to break down in the environment.
I understand the need for certain types of PPE like the N95 masks in medical settings, I am not disputing that some people do need to have access to these types of items.
The issue I have is with the public who seem to just not give a shit about polluting the places we call home.
The WHO says this about disposing of masks properly:
“Dispose of them appropriately and perform hand hygiene immediately afterward. If medical masks are worn, appropriate use and disposal are essential to ensure they are effective and to avoid any increase in the risk of transmission associated with the incorrect use and disposal of masks.”
The WHO also recommends that people who are not in health care wear a reusable cloth mask and not an N95. Cloth masks can be worn over and over again reducing the rate of single-use disposable ones.
Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, voiced her approval of the growing number of Canadians wearing face masks but urged people to dispose of them properly in her June 14th statement. Tam also raised concerns over the litter from face masks and disposable gloves.
"Single-use masks should be replaced as soon as they get damp, soiled, or crumpled and disposed of properly in a lined garbage bin", she said.
"Do not leave discarded masks in shopping carts or on the ground where other people may come into contact with them". Leaving masks lying around both contributes to litter and the risk of infection for other people, Tam added.
Aside from the obvious issues with how these masks affect marine life, many of them get washed down storm drains, potentially ending up in local bodies of water (oceans, rivers, lakes, etc.) without being filtered first. Going to throw in a little PSA to remind you to never flush anything but toilet paper!
The Right Way To Dispose Of Masks
Should people recycle masks and gloves?
There are two main reasons you should not recycle masks and gloves. First, since the single-use gloves are made of a thin film, they can get caught in the recycling machinery and slow everything down. The same goes for the elastic on the masks as well — they could get tangled up with other waste products. More isn’t always better when you’re putting the wrong thing into the recycling bin.
Most cities in Canada are asking people to dispose of these items like they would household hazardous waste because of the importance of safety for the sanitation workers — they have to touch the items during the separation process for recycling. Keeping masks and gloves out of the recycling bin keeps them safe, too.
But can single-use masks and gloves be recycled? It’s a challenge, particularly as virgin plastic is so cheaply available. "PPE [personal protective equipment] is made from a complex mix of materials that require specific machinery and techniques to recycle", comments Stephen Clarke, head of communications at TerraCycle Europe, which has launched a new scheme to tackle the problem. "It costs more to collect, separate and recycle the PPE than the value of the resulting recycled material. If the economics don’t work, [authorities] don’t have the incentive to collect and recycle PPE".
Since it’s mandatory to wear a mask indoors in Ontario now, a sustainable, reusable mask is by far the best option.
Reusable cloth masks — which should be washed at 60C to kill any virus particles — are just as effective when it comes to stopping the spread of Covid-19 in non-medical settings. "[For] the person on the street, the cloth masks are perfectly adequate", says Dr. Jane Greatorex, a virologist at the University of Cambridge. “We’re encouraging people to wear masks to protect others around you because you don’t know whether you’re asymptomatic; [cloth] masks stop the larger droplets from leaving you.”
Scientists are also looking at more eco-friendly alternatives to the medical masks currently on the market, with researchers at the University of British Columbia currently developing a biodegradable mask made of wood fibers. "[The masks] will be fully biodegradable, made out of just wood,” says researcher Daniela Vargas Figueroa. “We’ll be utilizing wood fibers that are fully available here in British Columbia, where we have a very sustainable forest industry".
The World Health Organization (WHO) says you should dispose of a mask as soon as it is damp. To remove the mask: clean your hands first; remove it from behind with the ear or head strap (do not touch the front of the mask); pull the mask away from your face; discard it immediately in a closed bin; wash your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
And if you are unwell with coronavirus symptoms you should store your waste safely for 72 hours before putting it in communal or external bins.
The Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) has also reported concerns about incorrect disposal, saying: "If even only 1 percent of the masks were disposed of incorrectly...this would result in 10 million masks per month dispersed in the environment. Considering that the weight of each mask is about 4 grams this would entail the dispersion of over 40 thousand kilograms of plastic in nature."
Environmental experts say even if we put them in bins they could still end up finding their way to rivers, oceans, into the environment – or end up filling up more landfill sites – so we should just avoid single-use plastic masks where possible.
You can get hold of reusable masks quite easily, we don’t want single-use plastic to become the new norm again.
The CDC has a compressive guide on how to wash your mask here.
Bottom line. Wear a mask. Make sure it's reusable and let’s not let this boom in single-use masks become the next enemy of the environment!