July 21, 2020


Single-use disposable masks could be a coronavirus hazard if we don’t dispose of them properly.

From 11.59pm on Wednesday, it will become mandatory for anyone in Melbourne and Mitchell Shire leaving their homes to wear a mask. Many people have already been wearing masks for some time in a bid to protect themselves and others from COVID-19.

Evidence has shown masks likely do reduce the spread of COVID-19, so wearing them is a good thing – particularly as Victoria continues to grapple with a second wave.

But one conversation we’re not having enough is the hidden danger of disposable masks and this revolves around how to safely dispose of single-use masks. Disposing of used masks or gloves incorrectly could risk spreading the infection they’re designed to protect against.

Read more:
Victorians, and anyone else at risk, should now be wearing face masks. Here’s how to make one

A convenient choice

While reusable cloth masks are an option if you’ve been able to buy one or even make one yourself, disposable, single-use surgical masks appear to be a popular choice. They provide protection and they’re cheap and convenient.

It’s estimated the global use and disposal of masks and gloves will amount to 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves for every month of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The effect on the environment is an important but separate issue to the health risks we’re discussing here.

Alarmingly, from what we’ve observed, people are discarding masks in communal rubbish bins and even leaving them in empty shopping trolleys.

Don’t leave disposable masks lying around

People should know better than to leave used masks lying around. But they can’t be expected not to discard them in public bins when there’s no other option, and when they’re not given any advice on how to dispose of them properly.

Importantly, while there are clear guidelines on the disposal and separation of medical waste within health-care settings, guidelines for disposal of surgical masks in public settings are unclear.

The Victorian government simply advises they be disposed of “responsibly in the rubbish bin“, meaning they will be mixed with ordinary waste. This is in contrast to personal protective equipment (PPE) used in health-care settings, which is disposed of separately to regular waste, transported to sealed landfill, and in some cases incinerated.

Read more:
Which face mask should I wear?

Incorrectly disposing of masks could create a risk of infection for others. Kate Kennedy, Author provided

Why could this be a danger?

We don’t yet know a whole lot about the survival of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, on textile materials.

One study published in the medical journal The Lancet found no infectious SARS-CoV-2 could be detected on textile materials after 48 hours.

A review study which looked at the survival of a range of pathogens on textiles found viruses could survive longer than 48 hours, though not as long as bacteria.

Although we need more research on this topic, it seems there is potential for cross-contamination, and therefore possibly COVID-19 infection, from disposed masks.

In all likelihood, other people, such as supermarket staff collecting trolleys, or waste handlers, will come into contact with discarded masks well within that 48 hour window.

In addition, if the discarded disposable mask is carrying infectious particles, it may be possible for these to cross-contaminate the surfaces they come into contact with, such as shopping trolleys. And we know SARS-CoV-2 survives more readily on hard surfaces than porous ones, so this is a worry.

Read more:
Are you wearing gloves or a mask to the shops? You might be doing it wrong

disposable masks
Masks have been mandated in Victoria. But we’re offered little guidance on how to dispose of them safely. Shutterstock

Who needs to act?

This issue is a potential biosecurity concern, and we need segregation of used masks from ordinary waste immediately. We urge attention from the Victorian government and local councils to act on this issue, including in the following ways:

  • create general awareness of this problem, potentially by including messaging around how to properly dispose of masks in directives on their use
  • install pop-up secured bins in public places such as shopping centres for used masks and gloves
  • workers collecting the waste should follow biohazard protocols similar to those used to manage waste collected from health-care settings.

What you can do?

In the first instance, please don’t leave your used masks and gloves in a shopping trolley, or lying around anywhere else.

The safest thing to do is to put used masks and gloves into a plastic bag when you take them off, and seal it. Then, when you’re back at home, throw the bag away into a closed bin.

Hopefully we will have further directions on how to dispose of these items soon.

What about NSW residents?

The NSW government has not yet mandated the wearing of masks in public despite the growth of COVID-19 cases.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she would not yet follow Victoria’s lead by enforcing mask use in public but urged that people wear masks where social distancing was not possible.

“What NSW Health and myself are worried about most at this moment in time is what people are doing when they’re entering hospitality venues … you can’t wear a mask when you’re having a meal,” Ms Berejiklian told 2GB radio.

The NSW Rail, Tram and Bus Union has called on the NSW government to provide all public transport workers with masks if they requested it and encourage mask-wearing on public transport.

Read more:
Is the airborne route a major source of coronavirus transmission?

Saniyat Islam, Lecturer, Fashion Entrepreneurship, RMIT University and Kate Kennedy, Lecturer, School of Fashion and Textiles, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  • Every day l go out for my whole 1 hour l see nothing but mask’s being thrown around Everywhere it’s Discussing and the covid cleaner’s that are everywhere Don’t even pick them up there all over the place


  • This is true.


  • What a disgusting thing to do – expect someone else will clean up your hopefully virus free mask and gloves.


  • This is really important, yet basic information that we all need to hear right now.


  • I can’t think of anything worse than leaving a mask or gloves that I’ve used around for someone else to have to deal with. It’s disgusting and lazy


  • Some people are so lazy and disgusting.


  • Great article .I hope people use common sense and place used masks in the bin. It is very disturbing to know that some people would put the lives of others at risk like this.


  • Great article about the current situation.Everyone has responsibility to protect vulnerable people.


  • Interesting post and not something we had considered. We are of the disposable mask option, and I had just assumed I would dispose of it in our normal rubbish bin. Any other options are just not ok – dumping in various places other than a bit. I understand this now poses a number of new issues. But I also don’t know how many will wash the re-usable version as readily, quickly, often as will be required.


  • What a beat up over the top panic bating story. Has anyone seen any masks being left in supermarket trolley’s etc ? Of course hospitals and so on have different disposable methods for their medical waste, stands to reason but for those of us who don’t work or live in those environments, the rubbish bin is our only way to dispose of them.

    • Should have added what the author of the article said “Alarmingly, from what we’ve observed, people are discarding masks in communal rubbish bins and even leaving them in empty shopping trolleys.” I’d like to know where they have observed them, how many, which state and over what period of tiem otherwise that statement means nothing.


  • That’s right up there with disposable nappies. Just plain gross!

    • I really do not know why people are so dumb throwing them anywhere after they use them as common sense should tell you to take off at home and not what they are doing.


  • I was only talking to my mother about this yesterday as I saw an elderly gentleman with a mask on at the shops and the mask was so dirty ,it makes you think what germs are underneath.


  • I just don’t understand why people can’t throw rubbish in the garbage bins in general!

    • Yes that goes beyond my understanding too. When I’ve rubbish and can’t find a bin I stick it in my handbag and throw it away at home.


  • That hadn’t occurred to me. I hope people dispose of them properly.


  • For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction….you change one thing to help,.something else will happen.


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