High Country News
Published in

High Country News

Should you recycle your disposable mask?

How masks are manufactured is important for the environment, too.

In March, Seattle was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the parents of Yooni Kim, a retail worker, were worried about her. They sent her a package of disposable masks, and she began wearing them to work. But that created a new problem for their environmentally conscious daughter: How could she responsibly dispose of the used masks? Soon, she discovered a potential solution: a recycling service, offered by a company called TerraCycle. For $86, TerraCycle would send Kim a small “ZeroWaste” box, roughly the size of a toaster oven, which she could fill with used masks and ship back to the company for recycling.

As Kim debated making the purchase, she wondered what happens to recycled masks, and about the environmental impacts of TerraCycle’s process. She figured it had to beat the alternative: millions of used masks piling up in landfills or being burned in incinerators, depending on the local waste company’s practices. “It is an expensive thing to invest in,” she said. “But I was open to paying for it, because if someone wants to dispose of masks responsibly, why not?” Determining what constitutes responsible disposal, however, is not straightforward. And, experts say, a truly sustainable solution would require rethinking manufacturing systems, long before any masks hit the trash or recycling bin.

A worker at the French start-up Plaxtil handles used masks as they are prepared for recycling into plastic to make other products. Guillaume Souvant/AFP via Getty Images

TerraCycle was founded as a worm fertilizer company in 2001. Since then, it has pivoted to recycling items other companies won’t accept, such as pens and markers, plastic wrap and single-use coffee capsules. So far this year, it’s collected and processed 74,000 pounds of disposable masks, gowns and gloves, stationing ZeroWaste boxes at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas and Subaru dealerships, as well as selling them to individual consumers like Kim.

To recycle the items, workers first sort through the large piles of used personal protective equipment sent to the TerraCycle headquarters in New Jersey to ensure that the dominant material is the non-woven polypropylene used in most disposable masks. (Metal nose strips from N95 masks, for instance, are removed.) Then, the piles are melted down and shredded into a mulch-like material that can be molded into things like railroad ties and shipping pallets. The resulting plastic is structurally sound, but looks uneven and dull, so selling it doesn’t net TerraCycle much money. That’s why the recycling boxes are expensive: The high price tag offsets what would otherwise be a net loss for the company.

See the rest of the story here: https://www.hcn.org/articles/north-covid19-should-you-recycle-your-disposable-mask

Jane C. Hu is a contributing editor for High Country News and an independent journalist who writes about science, technology and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store