Is PPE recyclable?: How to dispose of used face masks properly

We use PPE (personal protective equipment) such as face masks and gloves everyday as part of our daily routine now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. However, how these items are disposed of is a cause for concern for the environment. With 53 million face coverings thrown away in the UK daily, it’s no surprise that we’re questioning where these products end up. These masks are as damaging as single-use plastic, yet they are being found in streams, rivers, and oceans. While we must wear face coverings to protect others during the pandemic, we also need to ensure we’re throwing them away sensibly.

Can PPE be recycled?

The short answer is no, PPE cannot be recycled. Most types of PPE, like masks and gloves, are flimsy and flexible by design, meaning they obstruct equipment at recycling facilities, causing disruption to operations. What’s more, medical-grade disposable masks are often made of polyethylene, a plastic that is non-biodegradable and non-recyclable. Unfortunately, these items can take up to 450 years to decompose, releasing highly toxic chemicals that can cause major harm to living organisms.

 

Another reason face masks can’t be recycled is because they pose a severe contamination risk to those who handle the waste. For example, a recycling plant worker could accidentally come in contact with a used face covering and put themselves at risk of contracting Covid-19. To prevent this, PPE needs to be correctly and carefully disposed of to avoid virus transmission.

How to properly dispose of used face masks

Used face masks should never be placed in recycling bins, they should be put in the general waste bin instead. The best way to do it is by putting them into a sealable black bag to prevent the spreading of germs. This bag can then be placed inside another one for extra protection. However, if a mask has been worn by somebody with Covid-19 symptoms or who is self-isolating, disposal requires extra consideration. The UK government states these should be double-bagged and stored separately for 72 hours before going in the bin.

 

Businesses face a bigger task than general households since there is more rubbish to manage. However, to tackle this, there are organisations out there ready and waiting to manage your PPE waste. Take London-based recycling company Bywaters, for example. Its clinical waste service provides UN-approved containers that are collected by trained professionals. All of your used PPE items are transported to an Energy From Waste facility where it will be destroyed through sterile high-temperature incineration, eliminating any health risk. This is the most convenient way for businesses to dispose of PPE safely.

Used face masks are damaging to the environment

Millions of single-use medical masks have been found littered in the street, and this not only increases the risk of virus transmission but also impacts wildlife. Many small animals can get trapped in the ear straps of a mask. In fact, according to the RSPCA, more than 900 animals have become entangled in these since the beginning of lockdown. You can avoid this by snipping the straps off before throwing your masks away.

 

Face coverings don’t biodegrade, so they tend to fill up landfills quickly and contribute to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. They also end up in the ocean, where they can harm fish and other ocean-dwelling creatures. During the International Coastal Cleanup event in 2020, volunteers collected over 62,000 items of PPE from beaches. Dr. George Leonard, Chief Scientist at Ocean Conservancy, told CNN that this is the latest threat which could exacerbate an “already tedious situation.” You just have to look at this video to see the reality of the issue.

 

Single-use plastic breaks down into microplastics which are dangerous to marine wildlife. Consuming such plastics can lead to digestive blockages and internal organ damage. If the fish we eat has ingested microplastics, we’re going to be consuming them too. This, unfortunately, can cause a variety of health problems, such as reproductive issues, development delays in children, and obesity. If we continue on the same path, by 2050 it’s estimated that they’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

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