As the novel coronavirus continues to surge in communities around the world, wearing a face covering is still an essential part of our everyday routines. While personal protective equipment (PPE) helps prevent the spread of COVID-19, face masks made of different types of materials require varied care. As for single-use paper face masks? Though these don't require laundering or sanitizing, they do need to be thrown away properly, with both health and the environment in mind. Ahead, we share insight from environmental and infectious disease experts on the best ways to dispose of this type of face covering.
Related: How to Maximize the Efficacy of Your Face Mask During the Coronavirus Pandemic
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First things first: Remove your mask safely.
To take off your PPE effectively and safely, Belinda Mager, the director of communications for the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), says to remove your mask by only using the strings or ties to avoid touching your face.
Treat paper masks the way you would other soiled garbage.
According to Mager, paper face masks should either be thrown away with trash in your home or in a corner litter basket if you are in public (just be sure to avoid removing your mask while still around others). "They should not be placed on top of trash bags, and certainly not left on our streets or sidewalks," she says. "Our sanitation workers deal with hygiene items each and every day—from bandages to feminine hygiene items to diapers, to name just a few. We ask that disposable face coverings get thrown out properly, just like one would dispose of these other items."
You don’t need to separate these coverings from your other trash.
While it may seem wise to separate your disposable face mask from your other garbage, Nasia Safdar, M.D., Ph.D., and professor of infectious disease at the University of Wisconsin, notes that it actually isn't required. "The virus does not survive for prolonged periods outside the body," she says. "Persons handling garbage must wear gloves when handling any trash, and that will protect against this [virus], as well."
If you’re healthy, take steps to use the paper mask more than once.
As the COVID-19 outbreak looms, keeping a face mask on hand is necessary for your well-being and those around you. Dr. Safdar says you can even reuse a paper face mask—simply store it in a breathable container and avoid touching the outside of the mask. However, those who are experiencing respiratory symptoms should make sure that they toss theirs out after each use, the infectious disease expert notes.
And while face coverings are helpful (be sure to avoid touching and adjusting your mask when it's on, too), they are not the only tool or method available to curb the spread of the virus. "Any type of face covering that covers the nose and mouth is good, [but] masking is not a substitute for social distancing—both are critical, regardless of your age," adds Dr. Safdar. "These are considered essential non-pharmaceutical interventions and for them to be successful, most people in the population should be practicing them consistently."
Choose more environmentally friendly mask options.
Since paper face masks should be thrown in the trash—not in recycling bins—Mager also recommends environmentally friendly options like cloth reusable face masks or coverings to limit excessive litter. For more information on reusing PPE, visit sites like the New York City Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).