Since the start of the pandemic, millions of masks and other personal protective products have been worn and discarded. Many of these products end up in public parks, rivers, and even our own backyards when they are not disposed of properly. Typically, the best practice is to throw away one’s masks and such with the rest of their trash. PPE recycling has not been widely accepted by recycling plants as these products have potentially come in contact with the Coronavirus.
PPE Pollution and Litter
Over the past year, the fight against plastic waste has become more frustrating to deal with due to face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) pollution and litter associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. According to sciencemag.org, “…the pandemic could result in a monthly global consumption and waste of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves.” Therefore, it is crucial to dispose of these medical devices and equipment correctly to ensure they do not end up in the ocean or vulnerable ecosystems. Unfortunately, there is not enough capacity or resources available to recycle these materials on a global or even national scale.
Filti PPE Usage Recommendations
Here at Filti, we typically recommend wearing our masks and material for a total of 12 hours and then properly disposing of them afterward. The 12-hour usage recommendation ensures that filtration efficiency values do not decrease too much from extended use. It also helps to minimize the adverse effects, such as severe acne, rashes, and in some cases, skin breakdown from wearing a dirty or heavily used mask.
Our masks have ear loops that are made using nylon and spandex. Spandex is a non-recyclable material, and the loops and straps on masks often can become caught in the machinery at waste management facilities. Our material, on the other hand, is not made with spandex and would normally be recyclable.
Disposal of Mask Inserts and Mask Material
Since many of our clients use our Filti material as inserts in reusable masks and even make their own masks out of it, we must advise against placing the material in residential recycling bins. If contaminated material gets sent to a recycling plant, it could potentially infect the frontline waste management workers, who could then spread it to their families and friends. Hundreds of waste management workers may have already been infected during the pandemic since many are not adequately outfitted to handle such materials in the first place.
Recycling PPE and Hazardous Waste
Even though most recycling facilities do not accept PPE and other contaminated articles, some organizations, such as TerraCycle, are fully equipped to handle these potentially hazardous materials. The first step in the process is to collect the recyclables in a Zero Waste Box provided by TerraCycle. The waste box is then shipped to one of their collection centers, where the contents are checked in, weighed, and inspected. Next, they go to one of their third-party processing plants. Once the materials arrive, they go through a sorting process based on a couple of key characteristics: type and density. Once sorted, the recycling process can begin. The outcome of the recycling process for hazardous materials is usable products like non-woven face masks or any number of other plastic products such as shipping containers, shipping pallets, or construction materials.
It is often difficult to find organizations willing to recycle masks and other PPE. Many do not have the resources, and others only cater to healthcare organizations like hospitals or clinics. Operations like TerraCycle offer recycling certificates once a year to notify those who wish to know if TerraCycle destroyed their recycling shipments successfully. The certificates also include the weight and type of material that was originally submitted.
As the mountain of plastic waste grows, scientific communities and governments continue their search for viable options. At the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in Dehradun, India, scientists have suggested that melting non-woven PPE fabric and material may help reduce the amount of plastic pollution in the world. Instead of just incinerating the waste, they can use a process called pyrolysis to melt the materials in a chamber where no oxygen is present. The resulting product is a liquid oil that can be used as fuel.
Alternative Recycling Methods for PPE and Masks
Through a study conducted by the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, researchers concluded that this alternative was more eco-friendly than incineration or dumping the waste in a landfill and could be used to help meet the ever-increasing global demand for energy.
However, there are representatives and proponents of environmental and conservation agencies who would disagree. They state that harmful chemicals such as BPA, lead, and cadmium are emitted from this chemically recycled fuel when it is burned. If this is true, then it’s back to deciding between incineration and landfilling.
While both produce their own types of chemical pollution, incineration processes still leave waste behind that must be disposed of appropriately. The remaining waste left behind from incinerated masks and material will still end up in a landfill, albeit a smaller and more toxic one. Most of the time, environmentalists choose in favor of landfills because it is easier to contain the chemical byproducts (benzene) instead of the ones released into the atmosphere by the incinerators (ozone, CO2, nitrogen gas).
Thanks for Reading!
We hope you found our article on PPE recycling informative.
We here at Filti are passionate about helping people stay healthy and improving the air quality that they are breathing. We design our masks and filter products to help keep you and your family safe by filtering out the harmful particles in the air, including the different COVID virus strains. Our mission is to make quality air filtration products available to all consumers and frontline workers.