How to Dispose of Face Masks and Gloves—Properly

Coronavirus has made us more cautious than ever—but are we wearing masks and gloves at the detriment of the environment?

Whether you’re wearing them because your state mandates it or you simply think it’s the right thing to do (or both), millions of people around the globe are using disposable face masks—along with latex gloves. Unfortunately, some people are knowingly and unknowingly disposing of masks and gloves incorrectly. We asked the experts to weigh in on the dos and don’ts of PPE waste. You’ll also want to make sure you’re wearing your mask the right way.

What is considered improper disposal?

Littering might seem like an obvious no-no. But that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to coronavirus. “We’re seeing a lot of people disposing of masks and gloves on sidewalks and in the parking lots of grocery stores and restaurants as they get into their cars,” explains Jennifer Brandon, PhD, researcher at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UC San Diego, and senior scientist at Applied Ocean Sciences, LLC. This not only looks bad, but it also creates a problem when the masks and gloves get washed down storm drains, potentially ending up in local bodies of water (oceans, rivers, lakes, etc.) without being filtered first.

The main problems from improper disposal

Germs can spread when masks or gloves are not disposed of correctly. And since gloves and masks are making their way onto beaches and subsequently into rivers, lakes, and oceans, animals are being negatively affected.

“We are starting to see an increase in COVID waste in our beach and underwater clean-ups,” Brandon reports. This is of particular problem when it comes to masks, which underwater may look like jellyfish as it drifts along, she says. Jellyfish are a main food source for sea turtles, sunfish, tuna, swordfish, and sharks and, the thought is, that similar to when a sea creature eats plastic it can cause digestion problems and more and may even lead to death. The masks can also entangle animals as sea debris (since the elastic is strong and harder to break down) and can eventually get eaten by seals, otters, and sea lions. The latex gloves get caught too, and since sea birds are attracted to brightly colored fish, they are more likely to eat the light blue and purple gloves that many people are using. Over time, it will become an even bigger problem as the gloves and masks begin to break down into smaller pieces, becoming a “food source” for even smaller creatures.

The right way to dispose of masks and gloves

“If a trash can is available, throw them into it,” Brandon says. If one is not available after she has gone into a grocery store or other public place, she leaves them in her car for 24 hours until germs have died. Then she throws them away in the can marked for solid waste. She suggests peeling the gloves down so you’re only touching the inside part—that way you can avoid possible germs on the outside of the gloves. When it comes to your face mask, remove it by the elastic bands and fold it in half like a taco, being careful to only touch the inside part to protect you from outside germs as well. Should people recycle masks and gloves?

According to Brandon, there are two primary reasons you should not recycle masks and gloves. First, since the single-use gloves are made of a thin film, they can get caught in the recycling machinery and slow everything down. The same goes for the elastic on the masks as well—they could get tangled up with other waste products. More isn’t always better when you’re putting the wrong thing into the recycling bin.

Second, Brandon notes the importance of safety for the sanitation workers—they have to touch the items during the separation process for recycling. Keeping masks and gloves out of the recycling bin keeps them safe, too. Make sure to recycle your plastic bottles though—here’s how long it takes for plastic bottles to break down in the ocean.

Alternatives to single-use masks and gloves

With free shipping and many fashionable fabric trends, consider cloth masks and reusable household cleaning gloves. Single-use masks and gloves end up costing more than reusable ones over time—plus, these are better for the environment as they can be reused. (Before re-wearing, wash your mask in the washing machine and gloves with hot soapy water, then let them air dry, outdoors if possible, for 24 hours.)

It’s worth noting that Kirsten Koehler, PhD, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recommends against wearing gloves, noting they are not helpful unless you are a medical provider. Regarding guidelines on wearing gloves, Koehler adds, “If you were going to wear gloves, to do so effectively would mean never using your phone, wallet, or purse because as soon as you touch any of those high-touch surfaces then the gloves aren’t effective anymore. They’re also a huge environmental waste and it’s not worth the effort and pollution and wastefulness to wear them.” Your better option is to wash your hands with soapy water, which is proven to prevent these 15 diseases.

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Dianne Bright
Dianne Bright is a southern California-based writer and a regular contributor with RD.com, where she writes about the environment, nutrition, finance, pets, and books. She also contributes to TheHealthy.com. Her work has appeared in Scholastic's Parent & Child magazine and blog, I Love Cats magazine, and Christianity Today, among other publications. Bright's book of parenting reflections: MOMS KICK BUTT, comes out in February, 2021. Her M.A. is in Spanish American Literature. Follow Dianne on Twitter @dibright, Facebook @AuthorDianneBright, and Instagram @authordiannebright.