How To Safely (And Sustainably) Get Rid Of Used Masks, Gloves & Other PPE

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
Hand Disposing of a Medical Mask
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Millions of disposable face masks have been used since the coronavirus pandemic began—and it feels like half of them somehow ended up on the sidewalk outside my apartment. My block isn't the only one strewn with COVID trash: Photos circulating the internet show mask and glove litter in the U.S. and around the world, on land and at sea.

In addition to being a potential carrier of the virus, these castaways could pose a threat to wildlife and natural ecosystems. "Like other plastic pollution, littering these items creates environmental and health hazards," Beth Porter, a waste expert and author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System, tells mbg. So, we know that used PPE doesn't belong on the ground—but where does it belong? Here are a few ways to dispose of it safely and sustainably.

How to get rid of used PPE.

The World Health Organization recommends throwing single-use masks and gloves into the garbage bin immediately after use. But know if you throw it on top of a sidewalk trash can with no lid, it could blow away onto the street a minute later. "It is important that the container is properly closed after the mask is deposited to avoid masks being blown by the wind and littering street corners or wildlife habitats," explains Sue Kauffman, North American PR manager for TerraCycle, a waste management and recycling company. If you can, wait until you get to a trash can that is empty or has a lid before disposing of your PPE, or just keep it on until you're inside. And this may seem obvious, but considering the recent water system clogs in Philadelphia and El Paso, it bears repeating: Don't try to flush used PPE down the toilet. Just don't.

Well-meaning folks might wonder if it's OK to put masks and gloves in the blue bin since it looks like it could be made of a recyclable material. The answer to that one is no since it could pose a health risk to recycling workers (hundreds of whom have already gotten sick since the pandemic began). "There is the fear that PPE exposed to COVID-19 could infect the front-line waste management workers who may not be properly outfitted or take the necessary precautions to handle potentially hazardous waste," explains Porter. Even in non-pandemic times, surgical masks and latex gloves likely wouldn't be accepted by your local recycling system because they can clog the machinery that sorts materials, similar to how plastic bags do.

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One way to get your PPE recycled.

If you feel a tinge of eco-guilt about the masks or gloves you're throwing in the trash, consider buying or making reusable cloth options instead. Just be sure to wash them regularly after use.

And if you do have to use the disposable stuff, Kauffman's company TerraCycle offers a PPE zero-waste box that essentially works like a recycling bin for used safety equipment and protective gear. It comes with a prepaid return label so after you fill the box with disposable gloves, dust masks, garments, hairnets, beardnets, earplugs, and safety glasses, you can send it back to their HQ for processing. From there, "the collected waste is mechanically and/or manually separated into fibers and plastics," explains Kauffman. "The fibers, such as paper or wood-based products, are recycled or composted. The plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into new recycled plastic products." It's a complicated and expensive process, so these boxes cost a pretty penny (a small one comes in at $148). To offset the cost, consider reaching out to your local grocery stores or retailers to see if they'd consider stocking one in their space for the whole community to access.

Unfortunately, littered PPE isn't the only unsustainable byproduct of COVID-19. As stores, bars, and restaurants continue to open back up for takeaway service, we're probably only going to start seeing more plastic packaging sitting around—lots of which is destined for landfill. "An estimated 108 local governments have temporarily suspended curbside recycling in some form, although at least 41 of these have since reopened," says Porter. As we start to reemerge from social isolation, let's make it gentler on the earth by following local recycling rules, cleaning up after outdoor gatherings, and keeping things low-waste whenever possible.

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