Sudbury

Mask trash— hundreds of thousands of masks ending up in landfills and as litter in northern Ontario

Hundreds of thousands of masks are disposed of in northern Ontario every month of this pandemic. Most of them go to the landfill, but many also end up as litter on the ground.

Researchers are working on a way to make masks recyclable

Over the past year, masks have joined the usual litter of candy wrappers and coffee cups on the streets of northeastern Ontario. (Erik White/CBC)

Spring clean-ups are underway across northeastern Ontario.

And along with the usual candy wrappers and coffee cups, disposable plastic masks are also now often seen among the litter on the ground.

"I feel we've moved backwards a little bit and it's become a little more acceptable to litter," says Abby Obenchain, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie environmental group Clean North. 

"'I don't know what to do with this mask, so I'm just going to drop it on the ground.'"

She'd like to see more workplaces encouraging employees to wear re-usable cloth masks and have more strategically placed garbage cans, preferably with open tops so people won't be squeamish about touching a lid to throw out their mask.

Even masks that are properly thrown out end up in the dump, because they can't be recycled.

Jean-Luc Labonte, the owner of R and D Recycling near North Bay, says his workers have been screening out masks and gloves mistakenly put in the blue box. (Erik White/CBC )

Jean-Luc Labonte owns R and D Recycling and processes the contents of blue boxes from across northeastern Ontario and a sorting plant just outside of North Bay.

Over the past year his staff have regularly been picking masks and gloves out of the bottles and cans and papers streaming by on the conveyor belts. 

"People are under the impression that everything is recyclable, but there is no market whatsoever for that material," says Labonte.

A sign at a Sudbury medical centre advises patients to throw masks in the garbage, but several could be seen on the ground outside on the side walk. (Erik White/CBC )

He says they stopped collecting the blue boxes from the North Bay hospital out of fear of COVID contamination. 

"Because it came from the hospital, we didn't want to take a chance. And we're trying to protect our people on the line too. If anything happened, we would have to close down," says Labonte.

The Sudbury hospital says it went through 265,000 masks last month, compared with about 40,000 per month pre-pandemic.

Health Sciences North says it does clean and re-use some gowns and eye wear, which is also done at Sault Area Hospital. 

A littered mask sits in front of Tom Davies Square, the Greater Sudbury city hall. (Erik White/CBC )

 A research team at McMaster University is trying to cut down on this medical waste by trying to develop a recyclable mask.

Engineering professor Rakeshu Sahu says separating the aluminum nose piece from the polymer mask and the polymer ear loops is one of the big challenges.

He says it could take years to make a new more recyclable mask design the industry standard and to figure out what the recycled material could be used for afterwards. 

"I see this problem is going to persist for at least a few years in the future and for that we need to have a solution," says Sahu. 

A disposable mask lies amidst the traffic on Larch Street in downtown Street. (Erik White/CBC)

Obenchain says talking about the environmental crisis during a public health emergency has been a tough conversation to have, but hopes it starts soon. 

"I totally get it. The immediate is what people are dealing with. And at a time of crisis, when people are worried about survival, they can't worry as much about the environment," she says. 

"We do need to think about the future. We do need to think about climate change. We do need to think about the health of our grandchildren. One day the pandemic is going to be over and these other problems are not going away."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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