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How to Recycle Your Disposable Masks

Oct. 9, 2020Covid-19 has created an entirely new, massive wastestream. Terracycle has found a way to recycle PPE and prevent this garbage from polluting our waterways.

Covid-19’s spread is merciless. The disease has now infected nearly 36 million people worldwide, killing more than 1 million, including 210,000 Americans. Thankfully, we know one thing slows it down: face masks. Studies show face masks can help reduce the spread of Covid-19 by up to 85 percent and help save lives. The director of the CDC says masks are our best defense against the disease, and that if all Americans wore them, Covid-19 would be controlled in 6 to 12 weeks.

Needless to say, face masks are essential to protecting human life, but they have a downside — an overwhelming amount of waste that will take hundreds of years to decompose. The Guardian recently reported there were more face masks in our seas than jellyfish. 

Need a reusable, totally organic face mask? We got you. 


The Struggles of Recycling PPE

Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is typically made of synthetic materials, with the exception of select mask fibers, which may sometimes be comprised of a small amount of cotton. What this means is that we have literally billions of single-use products being used per day that are primarily made out of petroleum products, which have an estimated landfill lifespan of about 500 years.

Due to the their synthetic materials, masks can’t typically be recycled. However, on top of that, PPE from medical institutions, like hospitals and nursing homes, are considered biohazard waste, meaning they definitely can’t be recycled.

According to Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre, a French nonprofit focused on ocean ecology, the two billion masks ordered by their country alone pose a significant threat to the surrounding Mediterranean Sea, where elastic straps get tangled on wildlife (be sure to cut your straps if you don’t recycle your disposable masks).


The Recycle-Anything Wonder-Team: Meet Terracycle

If there’s one company leading the charge against waste on this planet, it’s Terracycle.

For years, they’ve found ways to recycle every waste stream imaginable, from art supplies to cosmetics — cigarette butts.

Now these guys can even recycle face masks and gloves.


How Does Terracycle Work?

Terracycle has been making waves with a business model that allows people who can’t stand the sight of single-use product waste to do something good about it. Using their prepaid waste stream-specific boxes, customers can choose a specific waste stream to tackle, and simply mail everything in for processing.

Terracycle has set up a proprietary process for breaking down common PPE products, such as face masks and gloves, to ultimately ensure there’s a place for all of this waste to go, while still empowering people to take the precautions they need against Covid-19.

It’s pretty simple:

  1. You buy a prepaid shipping recycling box from Terracycle for the waste stream of your choosing.
  2. Once full, you seal it up and mail it in.
  3. Terracycle then manually separates the materials into fibers and plastics.

Some brands have free recycling boxes, but at this time, the Safety Equipment and Protective Gear Zero Waste Box™​ is a paid box, with prices starting at $148 for an 11”x11”x 20” box.

Getting Your Office to Recycle Masks

For an individual, paying for a Terracycle box might be cost-prohibitive. For a business however, it’s a small price to pay for the benefit of eliminating one of the world’s most rapidly growing waste streams.

Talk to your boss about the implications of mask waste, and see if they’d be willing to sponsor one of Terracycle’s boxes to manage PPE waste for employees. You can also offer to crowdsource the funding needed to provide one for your child’s daycare or school, if they’re still in session.



Destiny Hagest

By Destiny Hagest

 —  Destiny is a freelance writer with a background in sustainability and natural health. She lives in the mountains of central Montana with her husband and young son. When she's not writing or chasing her toddler, you can find her wandering the quiet wilderness in search of wild herbs and antler sheds.

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