Crucial for face masks to be disposed of correctly

By Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye


Face masks are a legal requirement now in public areas here in Malaysia and around the world. This has caused a new challenge whereby it has become a source of pollution on land and at sea. The threats of disposing face masks improperly include the risk of spreading the virus to the public especially waste collectors or anyone who comes into contact with the litter. Studies show that the virus is able to survive on masks for a period of seven days. It is therefore extremely crucial for face masks to be disposed of correctly.

Now, we realize that improperly disposed face masks not only cause threats to people but also to animals and plants as well. Only by their volume, these masks can cause disruptions in the ecosystem. Animals will not be able to differentiate between plastic and food and hence tend to choke or worse still malnourished as these pieces of litter will bloat their stomach. Certain small animals get entangled in the elastic bands of the masks as these masks begin to disintegrate.

Plastics will decompose into very small-sized nanoparticles over time. This will accumulate in the food chain. The threat of these particles to carry chemicals and bacteria up the food chain is evident. This will eventually reach up to humans. One mask apparently can produce up to million such small particles.

Face masks must not be recycled due to the risk of the pandemic. Hence, disposing of these masks into the recycle bin after usage is definitely a big no. The risk of cross-contamination is high. In fact, after usage and disposal, these masks must not even come into contact with humans. However, the enforcement of wearing face masks does not come on par with the instructions on how to dispose of them. This is equally important not only to protect the environment but to curb the virus from spreading further.

Waste experts estimate that at least 10 million single-use face masks are used and discarded daily in the country. These masks cannot be recycled because they may be contaminated and could potentially lead to indirect infections if they enter the recycling system.

Many used masks end up on our roads and drains leading to rivers and eventually make their way to the sea. This is a matter of serious concern arising from the irresponsible behaviour of people who discard their used masks everywhere.

These used masks must be discarded into special bins and should be disposed in proper places or incinerated.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has also advised against open dumping or burning of medical waste as this could cause serious health and environmental issues. Hence, it is best if there is a proper guideline on how to dispose these masks to be circulated and available widely to the public.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), face masks should be discarded in the “correct” bin and not be mixed in the general household waste. The Brazilian Sanitary and Environmental Engineering Association (ABES), has come up with a guideline whereby used face masks should be sealed in two plastic bags one inside another, and thrown.


As an extra precaution, one should wash their hands before removing the mask and ensure that only the elastics are touched while removing it. Washing hands after handling one’s own mask is highly advisable.


In order to have a better way of disposing of these masks and other medical waste such as gloves, a centralized waste collection system could also be enforced for proper segregation at the household level. This has been implemented in China. Even the garbage collectors must be advised to wash their hands after handling waste.

It is important for the public to be aware that it is indeed a shared responsibility of all to help stop the spread of the virus and also to not incur or create a new issue along the way (environmental pollution). It should start with the responsible disposal of face masks.


The government in particular the Ministry of Evironment must play an active role in spreading the awareness to the public and as mentioned earlier the guidelines of disposing face masks should be made publicly available to all.

I call on the Ministry concerned to study the matter seriously and come out with clear-cut guidelines as well as the provision of special bins by various local authorities for the proper disposal of all face masks.



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