'I think there’s a real opportunity'; Advancements needed in safe disposal of face masks

The indoor mask mandate may be coming to an end, but two years into the pandemic, the right way to dispose of them has not changed. Right now, the right way to throw them out is in the trash and to the landfill.

"One of the things I don’t like about masks, one of the few things I don’t like, is that they end up in the trash," said Dr. Paul Pottinger, UW School of Medicine. "I think there’s a real opportunity for someone who’s an enterprising entrepreneurial person, maybe a young person who’s interested in engineering, can figure out a way to do this in a more sustainable fashion."

Dr. Pottinger said individual components that go into a mask many times include synthetic fibers, bits of aluminum and foam.

"Masks are a little bit complicated. There are a lot of layers, a lot of different fabrics and those fabrics, whether they’re naturally sourced or synthetic, it would be a lot of work to pull them apart and get them to be properly recycle," said Dr. Pottinger.

Dr. Pottinger is asking people to consider clipping the head or ear straps before disposing of used masks.

"The straps whether it’s a head strap or ear strap those straps if they end up in the environment they could trap wildlife," said Dr. Pottinger. "I would not want to see a bird or a fish or turtle choking on one of these things getting it stuck around its neck."

Cloth masks can be washed and reused, but they don’t offer as much filtration. 

Many are hopeful new technology will come down the line to either recycle existing masks or create sustainable ones that are environmentally friendly. Dr. Pottinger said his dream mask would be one that is safe, comfortable, affordable and sustainable.

"I was really sad, I saw some floating in the lake when we were at Yellowstone and I saw some floating in one of the big craters, beautiful geysers and people are just throwing them, so we got to be mindful about what we do," said Charlie Symmons.

"I hope there’s a better way so that they’re not just in the landfill right, more excess trash that we don’t need," said Alfredo Biralde.

The United Nations expects about 75 percent of used masks to end up in landfills or floating in the sea.

Public Health – Seattle & King County recommends people keep unused masks for use in locations where mask requirements might linger, such as hospitals, nursing homes, etc., or in the event we see a return to broader mask requirements. 

Here's where you'll still need to wear a mask after March 12 in Washington and Oregon

As Washington and Oregon end masking requirements for most places, there are still some situations where you'll need to wear a mask.

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