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Reuse, recycle or reinvent?

November 24, 2020

With face masks littering the environment, the search is on for sustainable solutions. Could they be recycled into new products? Or might masks made from organic materials cut pandemic pollution?

A dirty face mask discarded on the pavement
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Steinberg

Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution

When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."

But almost as soon as face coverings became standard attire to help fight the spread of COVID-19, the pair noticed disposable masks strewn around the streets and parks of their town, Chatellerault, France.

"We said to ourselves: 'It's not possible to leave this pollution,'" Neveu recalls. "We thought, we've found a solution for fabrics, [so] maybe we can also find a solution to reuse the masks."

Read more: Doing Your Bit: A French engineer has created a biodegradable plastic

In July, the company began one of the earliest face mask recycling programs and has since processed more than 100,000. 

Neveu and Civil don't deal with special medical-grade masks used by healthcare professionals, which tend to be disposed of separately as clinical waste in hospitals. And although they can process fabric face coverings, they focus on disposable ones which are plastic-based.

Read more: After coronavirus: Our relationship with meat and the next pandemic 

COVID-related masks and gloves recovered on land and underwater by citizen clean up group Operation Mer Propore.
Evidence of pandemic pollution can be seen from secluded beaches around Hong Kong to the French Riviera Image: Anna Muckerman

As many of the mass-produced fabrics they were used to working with contain large amounts of plastic fibers, they were able to tweak their existing process to deal with the plastic composition of the masks. 

Sections of the mask pass under UV light to kill any remaining virus particles and are fed into a whirring shredder. The scraps are then mixed with additional plastic and formed into new products to help fight coronavirus transmission. This includes visor attachments, mask strap extenders and door-openers for nursing home residents.   

Mounting piles of waste

It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear. 

Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.

They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"

Disposable mask pollution is piling up not only on streets and in parks, but on remote beaches and in the ocean 
Adventure Clean-up Challenge on secluded beaches around Hong KongImage: Esther Röling

Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.

"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. 

According to UN estimates, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.

Read more: Fighting for clean beaches in Mumbai

The limits of recycling 

Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. 

"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.

That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. 

Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.

"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.

Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. 

Read more: Pandemic spells disaster for Uganda's young entrepreneurs combatting waste and malaria

"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.

Opération Mer Propre organizer Laurent Lombard pulls masks, gloves and other waste to shore after recovering it from the ocean floor.
Clean-up operations have pulled masks, gloves and other waste from the ocean floor Image: Anna Muckerman
Clean-up operations have pulled masks, gloves and other waste from the ocean floor 
Image: Laurent Lombard

Hemp, sugar cane and sustainable alternatives

Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks. 

French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. 

Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. 

Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.

A Plaxtil worker surveys shreds of disposable mask during the UV light decontamination process.
During the recycling process, sections of mask pass under UV light to be decontaminated Image: Anna Muckerman

"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people. 

Read more: Bioplastics: Great green hope or a false promise?

Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.  

Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.

"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. 

Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. 

"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.