Here’s what you need to know about properly disposing of your PPE.

By Stacey Leasca
October 05, 2020
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In March, people scrambled to get their hands on any personal protection equipment (PPE) they could find. At the time, N95 masks ran short, gloves were in as high demand as toilet paper, and we didn’t know if we’d have enough hand sanitizer to last as long as we needed.

Since those early days of the coronavirus pandemic, things have drastically changed. Companies have shifted from making beauty products to every type of sanitizer imaginable, and luxury retailers are selling more masks (and accessories) than we can count. But now, it’s time to think about what we do with all that PPE we’ve racked up. Do we recycle it? Throw it away? Here’s what you need to know about properly disposing of your PPE.

Can I recycle PPE?

We’re going to give you the bad news first. No, you can’t recycle your PPE. As Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador and head of community relations at Republic Services, shared with House Beautiful, “Many types of PPE are flimsy or flexible in design — think gloves and masks — and can clog sorting equipment at the recycling center, making it difficult to sort the right stuff.” He added, “The other concern with used PPE is for the health and welfare of workers at the recycling centers that are sorting through the recyclables.”

Simon Weston, director of raw materials at the Confederation of Paper Industries, noted in a statement to Business Green: "While CPI welcomes the continuing support of the public in recycling household material and thereby sustaining a key manufacturing sector, PPE cannot be recycled with paper and board. It is vital that such material is disposed of properly in general refuse. Risking the health of key workers in this way undermines the good work and sacrifice that they and the majority of the public have and continue to make to overcome Covid-19."

How can I properly dispose of PPE?

It’s easy: Just get it safely in the trash. “When taking trips to essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies, please do not litter disinfectant wipes, masks, gloves or other PPE,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in a statement. “Instead, put them securely in a trash can and follow local trash and Center for Disease Control guidelines.”

This, of course, leads to another idea: Get reusable and washable PPE. Masks and other PPE are already ending up in our oceans and as litter, but it’s easy to do your part and consume less. Check out a few of the most comfortable and reusable masks to help save yourself, your neighbors, and the earth all at once.

How else can I do my part?

As the EPA noted, there is still a way to make an impact, and that’s by ensuring you’re recycling everything else possible in your life. “Right now, there is a critical need for raw materials in the manufacturing supply chain, especially paper and cardboard,” EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “Business closures and limited operations means less recycled material for American manufactures, and we all must do our part to recycle more and recycle right to fill this immediate need.”

It gave three suggestions to ensure you’re properly recycling including checking with your local recycling hauler to see what materials they accept, breaking down shipping and food boxes, rinsing containers and cans before tossing, and keeping all PPE, disinfectant wipes, and medical waste out of recycling bins.