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.