Updated: Jul 7, 2020
Gloves and masks, two new "accessories" that will probably stay with us for a while. Here are some tips to dispose of these everyday products in the best possible way.
The Metropolitan City of Milan recently launched the slogan "Don't throw them on the ground!". This awareness campaign is primarily aimed at Milanese citizens but can easily be extended to the Italian population. The goal is to prevent a new source of pollution from arising. Masks and gloves are waste, and as such, must be disposed of according to their features. More and more often we see images that portray these disposable products abandoned on the asphalt as if they were new works of public furniture. But it is not like that. These individual protective devices - often not biodegradable - if thrown along the streets or in green areas, not only risk polluting the environment, but also represent a health risk.
WWF puts Italy on alert. Some estimates by the Politecnico di Torino predict that approximately 1 billion masks and half a billion disposable gloves will be used for Phase 2 each month. Even if only 1% of the masks were abandoned, there would be a risk that 10 million masks will be dispersed monthly into the environment. Since each mask weighs 4 grams on average, this would lead to a dispersion of over 40 thousand kilograms of plastic. A symbolic photo of the last few days is that which portrays a Canadian woman who tries in vain to save a bird, suffocated by the elastic of a mask.
How and where to dispose of the protective devices
As mentioned above, these devices must be thrown away considering their specific characteristics. We offer below a list of the main types of gloves and masks and how to properly dispose of them.
The most frequently used disposable gloves are those in latex, a material that ensures high levels of sensitivity, elasticity and impermeability. Although these features make it similar to plastic, latex is a natural product, obtained from the incision of the bark of rubber trees. It, therefore, should not be thrown into the separate collection of plastic materials but is intended for the collection of the so-called unsorted waste. Latex is also perfectly biodegradable, able to decompose and be reabsorbed by the environment within a few months.
The same applies to nitrile gloves. This type of disposable is produced from an organic compound: through its processing in the laboratory, it is possible to create a very elastic synthetic rubber. Given their organic origin, once disposed of these gloves must be thrown into the unsorted collection. Just like latex ones, they do not require a specific disposal process and cannot be recycled. They are therefore intended for disposal in landfills or at waste-to-energy plants, where these unsorted wastes are burned to produce heat and electricity.
The story is different for vinyl gloves. Also known as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), vinyl is a chemically produced material which, thanks to the addition of plasticizer additives, acquires flexibility and malleability. This first-class replacement for rubber and latex is recommended for areas with a low risk of contamination. Being made up of plasticizers, PVC must be thrown into a separate collection, together with the other plastic materials.
As regards the masks, there are many types. From surgical masks to those equipped with filters; but all share a common destiny. These protective devices often consist of two external layers of "non-woven fabric" and a filtering layer in polypropylene (PP). In other cases, they are produced using polystyrene (PS), polycarbonate (PC), polyethylene (PE) or polyester (PET). Except for the washable ones, which can be reused, all disposable masks must be thrown every time in the collection of unsorted waste.
A responsible attitude
To approach Phase 2 in the best way, it is important to take responsibility. The deputy mayor of the Metropolitan City of Milan, Arianna Censi, says that in this moment of emergency it is important to think about others and protect the environment. Therefore, do not let single-use products that act as a barrier to the virus become a polluting source and a potential transmission vehicle. Several Italian cities are witnessing the return of nature, from the seahorses of Venice to the flowers and clean air of Milan. The key to an effective restart could be the synergy between man and nature. A new beginning in the name of awareness and the desire to take action sustainably.