Opinion: Can you recycle your disposable mask?

A protective face mask washes up on the beach in Zeebrugge, Belgium, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. With more people not disposing of protective face masks properly, many are ending up on beaches, walking paths and streets in Belgium. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
A protective face mask washes up on the beach in Zeebrugge, Belgium, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. With more people not disposing of protective face masks properly, many are ending up on beaches, walking paths and streets in Belgium. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Credit: Virginia Mayo

Credit: Virginia Mayo

In March, Seattle was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the parents of Yooni Kim, a retail worker, were worried about her. They sent her a package of disposable masks, and she began wearing them to work.

But that created a new problem for their environmentally conscious daughter: How could she responsibly dispose of the used masks?

Soon, she discovered a potential solution: a recycling service, offered by a company called TerraCycle. For $86, TerraCycle would send Kim a small “ZeroWaste” box, roughly the size of a toaster oven, which she could fill with used masks and ship back to the company for recycling.

TerraCycle was founded as a worm fertilizer company in 2001. Since then, it has pivoted to recycling items other companies won’t accept, such as pens and markers, plastic wrap and single-use coffee capsules.

So far this year, it has collected and processed 74,000 pounds of disposable masks, gowns and gloves.

To recycle the items, workers sort through the large piles of used personal protective equipment sent to the TerraCycle headquarters in New Jersey to ensure that the dominant material is the non-woven polypropylene used in most disposable masks. (Metal nose strips from N95 masks, for instance, are removed.)

Then, the piles are melted down and shredded into a mulch-like material that can be molded into things like railroad ties and shipping pallets. The resulting plastic looks uneven and dull, so selling it doesn’t net TerraCycle much money.

That’s why the recycling boxes are expensive: The high price tag offsets what would otherwise be a net loss.

The process may not be profitable, but according to TerraCycle, it can help the environment.

But Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist at Boston College, pointed out that recycling masks doesn’t necessarily reduce demand for freshly made plastic. While landfills do produce methane emissions, they’re mostly from decomposing food or paper, Krones said, not bacteria on plastics, such as disposable masks.

Furthermore, transporting and melting down masks during recycling requires significant energy.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to determine whether it’s more environmentally friendly to throw away masks or recycle them.

Still, even if recycling masks isn’t more environmentally beneficial than just tossing them, TerraCycle’s work helps remind consumers and companies that trash doesn’t disappear after it’s thrown out.

Jane C. Hu writes for High Country News, a reader-supported nonprofit media organization that covers the important issues and stories that define the Western United States. These stories are part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. The original story can be found here.

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