Masks are polluting the environment. These 4 companies have solutions

Story by CBC Kids News • 2021-03-03 15:45

Humans are using around 129 billion masks per month

We know that personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and face shields is important in protecting people against COVID-19.

But who’s protecting Mother Earth?

According to a study by the Environmental Science & Technology journal, humans around the globe are using approximately 129 billion disposable face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves every month.

And many of those masks have become litter in streets, beaches and oceans.

A machine making a long blue piece of fabric used to make a disposable mask

Blue disposable face masks being created in a factory in Louiseville, Quebec. (Image credit: Jean-Francois Fortier/CBC)

That waste is cause for concern for environmentalists like Rebecca Prince-Ruiz.

“There’s been an extraordinary rise in single-use plastics used in PPE,” said Prince-Ruiz, founder and executive director of Plastic Free Foundation, an organization aimed at limiting single-use plastics across the world.

“It’s the issue on top of everyone’s mind.”

So what’s the solution?

Disposable masks are extremely important for front-line workers such as doctors and nurses.

Stopping their use isn’t an option.

Newly created surgical masks sit in a bin. (Image credit: Ben Nelms/CBC)

But there are small things everyone can do to reduce waste, Prince-Ruiz said, such as wearing reusable masks.

Kids can also encourage adults to reduce their use of plastic gloves.

There are also companies finding creative solutions to this environmental issue.

Here are some examples.

1. Turning PPE into big blocks

At the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro, England, staff and patients have been using up to 10,000 masks per day, according to a statement released in December.

That’s a big increase from the 300 per day they were using in 2019.

Like most single-use masks, that PPE was destined for the garbage bin — until now.

Working with Thermal Compaction Group (TCG), an environmental organization, staff have found a way to sustainably recycle things like masks and hospital gowns.

So what’s their secret?

They created a machine that melts the PPE and turns it into big blocks.

A woman holds a giant blue block

The mask recycling scheme is being piloted in three areas at the Royal Cornwall Hospital. Pictured here is the block of melted single-use PPE. (Image credit: Royal Cornwall Hospitals)

Those blocks are eventually converted into new products such as bottles, bins and toolboxes.

“We hope this will be a real game changer in the way [we] tackle single use PPE, not only for us here in Cornwall but across the U.K. and beyond,” said Roz Davies, general manager of the RCHT Care Group.

2. Turning plastic into biofuel

One group of researchers from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in India has come up with a slightly different approach to the issue.

They studied the composition of gloves, face masks, goggles, face shields and gowns and found that many of them were made from what’s called non-woven polypropylene.

That means it’s very difficult to recycle.

But what researchers did find is that with high temperatures, that material can be broken down into biofuel.

Biofuel is a source of renewable energy, unlike coal, natural gas or petroleum.

That means it’s better for the environment because it generates energy that produces no greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

3. Compostable face shields

Two companies in the U.K. teamed up to create a plastic-free face and eye shield.

The shields are made from wood pulp material and are completely compostable.

A woman wearing a face shield

REEL and A Plastic Planet, the companies behind the invention, say their shared mission is to rid the world of unnecessary single-use plastic.

4. Reusing hospital PPE

One company in the U.S. came up with what’s called the Battelle CCDS Critical Care Decontamination System, a process that decontaminates N95 respirators so they can be used again.

Here’s how it works: hospitals are asked to collect their N95 respirators into a biohazard bag and ship them to Battelle, the disinfection company.

Then the masks are exposed to a vapor phase hydrogen peroxide process, which means any biological contaminants like COVID-19 are removed.

The masks are shipped back to the hospitals so they can be used again by front-line workers.

A discarded N95 respirator mask is pictured on the road. (Image credit: Ben Nelms/CBC)

‘If we all just do a little bit, that adds up’

So why isn’t the whole world using these high-tech processes?

For starters, it’s expensive.

Prince-Ruiz also says that reducing single-use plastics can be difficult depending on where you live.

“Where people live around the world, and even within a single country, it’s so different — the experience that they’re facing,” she said.

She also noted that while PPE is causing extra waste, single-use plastics that have been in use long before the pandemic continue to be the top-of-mind issue among environmentalists.

“There’s still other things we can do in our lives and our homes,” Prince-Ruiz said.

“PPE is just one part of that.”

If you’re looking for some tips on how to reduce waste caused by PPE, check out this article!

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