The time has come to talk about face mask etiquette—but not from the lens of whether you should wear one or not. Rather, how to properly handle your choice of mask—especially should that choice be a disposable option.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, disposable face masks were impossible to source for purchase, leaving many Americans searching for solutions. The guidance about what was considered a “proper mask” was at first completely absent. Skilled and amateur seamstresses and seamsters took to their hordes of fabric and supplies and quickly produced cloth versions of face masks and face coverings for family members, neighbors, friends, and community members, while others craftily created them from old t-shirts or socks.
Now more than 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we all have a better understanding of “proper mask wear” and supply chains for disposable masks have rebounded. At the same time, so have the levels of disposable face mask waste and pollution. Interestingly, hospitals and doctor’s offices have become an offender as many require patients and all visitors to remove the masks they arrive in and replace them with new, sterilized versions to wear while on site. In a mere second, disposable mask waste could have easily doubled. More concerning is the fact that as time passes, we’re growing more careless about how and where we dispose of single-use face masks. It seems we’re entering a never-ending cycle, the ramifications of which should be concerning to all of us.
Here are some truths to keep in mind:
Give a hoot! (Don’t pollute). Should you accidentally drop your mask, please pick it up and dispose of it properly. Leaving your mask on the ground is equivalent to littering. It also increases the risk of someone encountering it (and your germs!). On a typical day that would be icky and gross, but during COVID-19, adds to the potential transmissibility of the virus to others. Don’t be a dirty birdy. Instead, dispose of masks in a marked trash can, preferably one with a lid that seals to contain it, to limit the potential of it getting whisked up by wind and carried elsewhere. Interestingly, Australia has discovered a way to recycle (well…upcycle in a way) single-use masks to create two-lane roads, saving up to 93 tons of waste.
Do not flush! The only two things that should ever be flushed are human waste and toilet paper. Save yourself an expensive visit from the plumber by not flushing away single-use masks. The rise in ‘flushable wipes’ has seemingly led to an inaccurate theory that anything made from soft paper can be disposed of by flushing. The reality is that disposable masks are commonly made from synthetic fabrics--such as polypropylene and polyester—two ingredients that don’t break down, and further contaminate our water systems. Flushing masks can cause clogged toilets, drains, blockage in your plumbing system and malfunctions at wastewater treatment plans, thus impacting not just you, but your immediate community. Any item that does not disintegrate at the rate of toilet paper (near complete breakdown within one hour), should be placed in the garbage and not down the toilet.
Select your bin carefully. For those that value the environment and try to do all they can to protect it by keeping recyclable products out of trash landfills, the natural inclination is to recycle everything possible. Unfortunately, disposable face masks are disposable, but not recyclable. Most disposable face masks are made from non-recyclable synthetic fabrics, not paper. By placing disposable face masks into recycling bins, people can inadvertently contaminate solid waste facilities and recycling plants, resulting in expensive de-contamination processes, and recycling facility shut down.
Animals and marine life don’t comprehend COVID. It’s not something we often consider, but the waste humans produce often ends up in the proverbial homes of animals and marine life who have no clue what to do with it. An estimated 1.5 billion face masks (of any kind) may find their way into various marine ecosystems in the year 2021. Single-use face masks, along with disposable gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, water bottles, etc. found indiscriminately littered and disposed of, creates a serious wildlife hazard. Thousands of pounds of disposable face masks have been found in waterways across the globe, some of which have entangled (and strangled) birds and other marine life. Additionally, these items release microplastics into the soil and aquatic ecosystems, further contaminating and toxifying our bodies of water, the animals that live in them, and our water supply. For the sake of our animal kingdom both on land and in the water and the global food chain, please properly dispose of all single-use face masks.
Consider a reusable mask. Plenty of people have opted for reusable, cloth face masks or face coverings, but regrettably do not wash them as often as needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC) recommends washing reusable masks as they become dirty or at least once a day, either in a washing machine or by hand with a capful of bleach. It is also important to make sure the mask is completely dried after being washed. Otherwise, it becomes a welcoming environment for mold to grow—and that defeats its purpose. Also, fabric face masks do not have a direct path for recyclability. Similar to underwear, they are a secondhand clothing item that most will not take or reuse regardless of how thoroughly it has been washed.
An optimal solution instead would be the OCTO® Respirator Mask (ORM), a seamless single-unit elastomeric respirator mask, that can be worn, easily sterilized in boiling water, and reused again and again -- with no loss of efficacy. The ORM is also gentle on the environment as it maintains a 10-year shelf life and requires no replacement parts that would otherwise contribute to waste landfills.
For the crafty and creative, old fabric or cloth face masks and face coverings can, after thorough washing, be stitched together to create upcycled pot holders, trivets or blankets for personal use.
Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, Americans are still wearing face masks and will likely be required to do so in some capacity for several years to come. Should you feel strongly about wearing single-use face masks, please responsibly dispose of them. For those who wish to avoid compounding an already growing pollution and waste problem, consider a reusable option that can be easily cleaned, used, and stored for when it is needed most.