Disposable face masks are an efficient way of protecting yourself and others during the coronavirus pandemic—as long as you dispose of them correctly.
Don’t toss a used mask into the road or onto the footpath. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot of little blue masks littering in public spaces here in Iowa.)
Don’t let your used mask hang out at the top of an overflowing trash can. Whenever possible, put your mask into trash can with a lid that fully closes and wash your hands afterwards. (That advice comes from the WHO, which recommends putting your used masks “in a closed bin.”)
And never, ever flush your disposable face mask down the toilet.
As the Associated Press reports, disposable face masks, disposable gloves and what you might call “toilet paper alternatives” have been clogging sewers across the U.S.:
By flushing the wrong things, people are taxing infrastructure that’s already deteriorating, said Darren Olson, vice chairman of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Committee for America’s Infrastructure. “Your latex glove may not be the thing that causes a clog, but you are adding to the burden.”
Pitching your used mask into the street is just as bad, first because of the public health issues involved, and second because if your mask ends up in the gutter, it could eventually end up in a storm drain and from there, travel through the waterway network of lakes, tributaries and rivers all the way to the ocean. I’ll quote Fast Company, which is where I first read about our mass mask-disposal issue:
Face masks, gloves, and wipes can end up in our waterways and lakes if you throw them in the street (never mind the fact that littering is poor for the health of the planet anyway), because curbside storm drains connect directly to a nearby body of water.
Since I know you don’t want your discarded face mask to end up in the ocean, here’s what you should do instead:
Remove your disposable face mask at home, without touching the front of the mask (use the ties at the back to remove it safely). Discard the mask into a trash can with a secure lid, then wash your hands.
If you need to remove your disposable face mask away from home, look for a trash can with a secure lid. If none are available, consider discarding your face mask into a sealable plastic bag (Ziploc-style) which you can then carry with you until you find an appropriate trash receptacle.
Though the WHO didn’t specify that you need to find a trash can with both a secure lid and an interior trash bag, I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s probably a good idea to only toss your masks in trash cans that have bags in them. The goal is to make sure that nobody else will come into contact with your used disposable mask—no family members, no sanitation workers, no sewage cleaning crews (and, while we’re at it, no fish).
It’s also a good idea to invest in some cloth masks, if you can. Reusable cloth face masks are recommended over disposable face masks to free up the disposables (which provide better protection) for healthcare workers. An added bonus: Cloth masks are nearly impossible to flush down the toilet.