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In old Western movies, sometimes you would see a tumbleweed roll across a scene. The viewer immediately knew it was a setting on the edge of the wild frontier. Likely, a sparsely populated area without a city bus or factory. You might see a couple of tired horses outside a saloon. You feel the grit of the dust. You smell the hot air.
The modern tumbleweed is a disposable blue surgical mask. A specific, lightweight object tumbling across the street or catching on a fence. A vivid reminder of a different era, where close proximity and pandemic collided.
Decades from now, a blue mask under somebody’s foot in a movie scene will bring you right back to the 2020s. Maybe it is a reminder of hardship, worry, frustration, triumph or potentially the smell of your own coffee breath. Whatever the nostalgia, blue masks will be with us for some time as industrial waste from a party we didn’t want to go to.
Nearly 6.6 billion masks are used every day, resulting in a combined weight of more than 1,800 Honda Civics, according to a National Center for Biotechnology Information paper published in February 2022 (http://bit.ly/3O1atJl). Hopefully, this number drastically decreases, but the flow is still ongoing.
“Disposable face masks are manufactured using nonwoven polypropylene fabric,” the paper notes. “Two different fabrics (i.e., spun-bond polypropylene and melt-blown polypropylene) are used as raw materials for surgical and nonsurgical face masks.” However, there is an opportunity to recover these materials.
What do we do with all these masks?
Blue surgical masks do not belong in a normal recycling bin. While they are made of polypropylene, similar to some bottles in your kitchen, they are processed differently. Surgical masks are likely a common nuisance for many single-stream recycled material processing plants, similar to films and plastic bags. There are separate channels for these materials.
An article in The Hill sheds light on the potential for surgical masks to become other products (http://bit.ly/3UuapUB). In Australia, masks are used in roadway construction in a multilayer process. When processed into chips, masks have suitable potential for use as backfill in railroad construction. There is even a way to recycle masks into white LED bulbs in a process described as “scalable and environmentally sustainable.”
The upcycling potential of masks depends on the willingness of innovators to consistently gather masks and find a profitable output.
A company named TerraCycle, based in New Jersey, accepts boxes of used masks for recycling (http://bit.ly/3EnXIVM). They send empty boxes to hospitals to fill with lightly used masks and gloves. When the boxes are returned to TerraCycle, they are quarantined for 72 hours before being processed. After that, a team ensures they are clean and organizes other materials.
According to TerraCycle’s website, useful components can be found within clean surgical waste: “The polypropylene-dominant mixture from the face mask is densified into a crumb-like raw material that’s used in plastic lumber and composite decking applications.”
The ear loop bands can be ground down and mixed with other plastics to form flexible and malleable products. Even the blue gloves from a hospital can be used for flooring, decking and other outdoor surfaces. Interested parties can sponsor TerraCycle recycling programs, host drop-off points and even resell their own zero-waste boxes that ship back to the processing facility.
Masks also can be used as sound-deadening materials. Science Direct describes polypropylene materials as a potential substitution for traditional materials (http://bit.ly/3hDnTz2): “The noise reduction coefficient and sound absorption average showed a high sound absorption value over a frequency range of interest.”
Forbes ran an article describing how your next coat could contain old masks (http://bit.ly/3UQLri5). “COAT-19” is a puffy jacket created by Tobia Zambotti. The masks are found in the street, sanitized with UV and processed into the jacket stuffing, which is similar to the traditional polypropylene Poly-fill used in many jackets in this segment. You can faintly see the mask identification numbers and writing through the translucent outer layer.
Zambotti worked in China before starting the jacket business. In the region, masks were widely used before COVID-19. For instance, if you have a cold in Japan, it is common culture to wear a mask to protect others from getting whatever you have, completely outside any COVID-19 influence.
Another competitor in the mask reclamation sector is named VIDA. It will send you a prepaid shipping label to recycle higher-grade masks such as KN95, N95, KF94, four-ply and three-ply disposable masks (http://bit.ly/3UxWM75). VIDA also sells a wide range of apparel from this recycled content. In 2021, it won a World Changing Ideas Award from Fast Company.
I don’t have any expertise to know if the COVID-19 pandemic is nearing an end. I do know that masks are coming off and blowing away in the wind. When everyone wore masks, maybe they did not stand out as much. You might not even register that pale blue color in a gutter or parking lot today. However, for decades to come, we will see discarded masks in rivers, lakes and oceans.
There is a vast opportunity to harvest this widely used polypropylene substance. Decades from now, you might explain to your kids that the soccer field they are playing on is built from masks everyone wore for a couple of years. They may roll their eyes at you, but it could be a nice personal nostalgia to see those blue masks incorporated into normal life again and disappear into a functional background.