Between face masks and takeaway coffee cups, single-use items have become arguably the most used type of product during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while they may be the most convenient tool in protecting us against spreading the virus, they’re also the most detrimental to the environment.
So what’s the most environmentally sustainable type of face mask, how do we dispose of them correctly and what happens when we discard them inappropriately?
Not all face masks are actually sustainable
There are three types of face masks generally used across the world: cloth-based, surgical and N-95. Of these, the only one that’s designed to be reused is cloth. Surgical and N-95, which are single-use, are non-recyclable, due to their risk of contamination.
According to a recent study by Visual Capitalist, an estimated 52 billion single-use face masks were produced in 2020. Roughly 1.6 billion of them have ended up in the ocean, and it’s believed it could take 450 years for them to biodegrade. In February, the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that there are reportedly 3.4 billion face masks or face shields disposed of each day.
After a trip to your local COVID-19 testing clinic, vaccine hub or supermarket, it isn’t hard to see that the most used type of face mask is a disposable blue-tinted surgical one. They’re the ones often sold in packs at supermarkets or chemists, or handed out at venues, and are affordable and cheap to make. This raises the questions: how can we safely dispose of them and should we always use a single-use mask when we go outside our home?
What happens when we discard our single-use face masks inappropriately?
Folks, as easy as it might be to put your face masks in a recycling bin and believe you’re doing the right thing, it’s actually not the solution.
According to an NSW Environment Protection Authority spokesperson:
“Single-use face masks disposed of via red lid bins are sent to landfill with other waste. Disposable single-use face masks cannot be recycled and should not be placed in yellow lid recycling bins. If single-use masks are mistakenly thrown in the yellow lid bin, they can get caught in recycling equipment and become a hazard to waste management workers.”
How can I recycle my single-use face masks appropriately?
TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Box service collects and recycles your disposable garments. While their website says they would rather not receive disposable masks, a spokesperson told Gizmodo Australia over the phone that general PPE waste that has not been deemed medical waste — e.g. not from a hospital or possibly infected — is encouraged.
So how does it work? Well, according to a recent blog post on their website, once TerraCycle receives your PPE waste, it’s quarantined for at least two months.
“It is then manually sorted and shredded, the metal from the nose clips is smelted and the plastic is melted down into low-grade plastic pellets,” the post reads.
“The recycled pellet material is then used by third parties to manufacture a variety of new products including outdoor furniture, park benches, and decking.”
Earlier this year, engineers at RMIT claimed that single-use face masks could be recycled into material used to build roads, per The Guardian. Their method relied on “combining shredded single-use masks and processed building rubble”.
Science, baby, you love to see it!
The only downside to TerraCycle is that it ain’t cheap for consumers. A small box will cost you $190 AUD, while a medium one is priced at $288 — fortunately, a small box can fit up to 12,000 masks.
For a low-income family in one of the targeted LGAs, where the risk of catching COVID in the community is potentially significant enough to warrant wearing single-use PPE gear when you go out, it’s worth mentioning that something like that might not be an option. As such, a spokesperson told us: “We encourage businesses and councils to purchase these boxes, as we recognise it’s an expensive solution for consumers.”
TerraCycle has seen a 200% increase in sales since the onset of the pandemic and has reportedly seen a “considerable spike again over the past few weeks”. So, while they might not be an option for everyday people, it’s one that might be worth getting in touch with your local council about.
What can I as an individual do to protect myself from COVID and be environmentally sustainable?
When it comes to finding an environmentally sustainable solution to single-use face masks, as an individual, it’s all about weighing the risks of your environment. At least, according to Dr. Mayuri Wijayasundara from Deakin University, who specialises in enabling sustainable industry practice through a circular economy and wrote a piece for The Conversation on this exact issue.
“If you’re wearing a mask to walk outside and come back, and you’re the only person who you are in touch with, it’s best for the environment that you wear a reusable mask and wash it yourself and reuse it,” Dr. Wijayasundara told us.
“If you have surgical masks in a hospital and dispose of them, I think, at a time like this, we can’t question that much. If you can sterilise it and shred it and reuse the material, that’s the best… Not everybody has to wear single-use items.
“Based on whether the environment is high risk or low risk, we have to sometimes make a decision to use a single-use item and dispose of it. But in a domestic environment, in a relatively low-risk environment, if we are protecting ourselves and if we [get] the custodian [of] the product to clean it and reuse it, then we basically avoid another waste going to landfill.”
While hospitals may have “a mechanism to isolate” face masks and “decontaminate and recover materials”, it’s worth noting that there’s no real decontamination method for single-use face masks for the general public if you can’t afford a sustainable waste service like TerraCycle.
So how can we protect ourselves from COVID-19 while not worsening the world’s problem with waste? Well, according to Dr. Wijayasundara, it’s about turning to reusable materials like cloth-based masks and weighing up the risks of catching COVID-19 in your environment vs the need to wear a single-use face mask.
According to the Federal Government’s Department of Health, there’s limited experimental evidence that certain types of cloth-based face masks can reduce the transmission of COVID-19, but ultimately you need two to three layers of fabric for it to work. To continue to be effective, they need to be washed regularly, and “prolonged use, reuse without washing touching or adjusting masks can lead to self-contamination and infection of the wearer. They are also increasingly less effective if they are increasingly damp.”
But here’s the thing: they’re a far more environmentally sustainable tool in protecting us from COVID-19. And, as a result, in low-risk environments like walking around the block alone, they’re better off being worn over a single-use one.
“If you own a mask, and you take care of it, rather than transferring it to someone, then basically, you take the product responsibility for you, and you manage it,” added Dr. Wijayasundara.
“[It’s] general human tendency to go for the most convenient and the lowest risk to protect themselves, [but we need to] think about designing products proactively so that when they reach their end of life after consumption, they can be recovered.
“Shouldn’t we be thinking more, now that we are living with the pandemic, that protective equipment which is either more durable or can be reused by washing it or cleaning it or disinfecting or approaches like modular products where not everything has to be thrown away after each use, shouldn’t we be thinking about alternatives which are better?”