MANKATO, Minn. (KEYC) - Wearing a face covering in public has been a requirement for quite some time. By this point, putting them on has become second nature, but little guidance has been given on how to safely dispose of them.
Speaking of nature, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, disposable face masks were already causing issues on our land and in our water sources.
“Like most people, we’ve seen them laying in parking lots and different places like that where they don’t belong,” said Rick Baird, Environmental Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Mankato.
The majority of disposable masks are made with plastic materials that, once discarded, can last in our environment for centuries. Masks that are improperly disposed of pose many risks to wildlife, vegetation, water sources, and people.
According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 particles can survive on a mask for up to a week. For those in charge of cleaning up places that commonly accumulate litter, such as parking lots, the risk of contracting the virus is a very real threat to their health and their safety.
Betty Winkworth, Co-Chair of Mankato Zero Waste, added, “I see them too often just being thrown down and, you know, littering. Then your germs are sitting there waiting for somebody else to pick it up.”
Plastic in the masks can cause drastic long-term effects in our ecosystems. Wildlife can often mistake plastic items for food. This leads to choking, malnourishment, and risks of become entangled in the masks. Here in southern Minnesota, one of the biggest issues we are already facing is the accumulation of microplastics in our rivers and lakes.
“What we’re trying to fight right now-- reducing the microplastics that don’t ever break down. You know, they just kind of sink down to the bottom of the lakes and rivers and never really go away,” added Baird. “[They] end up in the, you know, ecosystem for a long period of time.”
Just a single mask can produce millions of microplastics that latch onto bacteria and chemicals. These particles work their way up the food chain, all the way up to potential human consumption.
There are changes you can implement now to lessen the environmental consequences of your masks.
“A reusable mask is a great option because you can reuse it, you can wash it and rewear it again, and it doesn’t end up in the waste stream,” Winkworth mentioned. If you opt for reusable options, be sure to purchase two of them so you can carry a spare, if needed. “Just by washing and drying is a great way to continue to have a functioning, reliable face mask.”
If you opt for disposable face masks, be sure to throw them away in the trash. If you are concerned about COVID-19 particles potentially on your mask, place it in a bag before throwing it away. To lessen the potential risk of wildlife getting caught in your mask, simply break or snip the ear loops, and if you come across a mask on the ground at a public place, do not pick it up.
“They’re not recyclable, and they’re, you know, contaminated. So, they should be properly disposed of and, you know, wash your hands afterwards just in case,” Baird said.