Discarded face masks and gloves littering streets, beaches, parks and parking lots are a sad sight of the times, creating eyesores and more importantly, major contamination risks to pick up and discard. With 88 percent of the world’s population
living in countries that have required or advised use of face coverings, disposable face masks number in the billions, especially the commonplace, single-use polypropylene variety. Along with disposable gloves and sanitary wipes, they are clogging sewers and waterways worldwide and showing up in fish bellies and on ocean floors.
What Not to Recycle
Recycling, the go-to strategy for environmentally conscious citizens, is unfortunately not a good option. Even in ordinary times, local recyclers won’t accept surgical masks and latex gloves because they jam machinery. Some dedicated providers box up used face masks and gloves and send them to TerraCycle
, where they are sorted manually and sustainably recycled. The cost for a small box
is a hefty $148; mindbodygreen suggests
asking grocery stores or retailers to stock some for the community to use.
Instead of recycling, the World Health Organization
recommends throwing single-use masks, gloves and wipes into a covered trash can or bin immediately after use so they are handled as regular trash. Ideally, they should be put in a resealable plastic bag first in consideration of frontline sanitation workers that can become ill from handling virus-infected materials. No mask, glove or wipe should be flushed down a toilet.
For masks, the eco-solution that harbors the lowest carbon dioxide footprint is one made of cloth that is machine-washed and dried after each use at a high temperature or washed by hand in a bleach solution (five tablespoons per gallon of water). University of Chicago researchers
found certain fabrics filter out viral aerosol particles almost as effectively as the medical N-95 mask: a layer of a tightly woven cotton sheet combined with two layers of polyester-spandex chiffon, natural silk or flannel, or simply a cotton quilt with cotton-polyester batting. See the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions's (CDC) instructions
for using sew and no-sew masks, and many DIY videos can be found on YouTube
using T-shirts, socks and napkins.