The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a greater reliance on disposable goods from plastic utensils to clamshell take-out containers, hospital face shields and the life-saving masks deemed crucial by health professionals in slowing the spread of the virus.
President Joe Biden earlier this month said his administration would make 400 million N95 masks available for free at U.S. pharmacies and community health centers across the U.S. Some pharmacies have already received their shipment. The full program is expected to be up and running by early February, while a free testing-at-home program has also been launched.
When disposable feels safer, it can be challenging for Americans who typically recycle — or at least limit fast fashion turnover or plastic bag use and other habits — to accept so much mask waste.
Most realize that public health needs supersede efforts to keep trash out of landfills and clogging waterways, but it doesn’t feel great.
In the health field alone, the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to generate up to 7,200 tons of medical waste every day, mostly disposable masks. And, according to a recent report published by OceansAsia, nearly 1.56 billion face masks entered our oceans in 2020 during the pandemic, although the group’s efforts largely centered around plastic in oceans and focused on Asian waste management.
The World Wildlife Fund has its own concerns about the incorrect disposal of single-use masks. “If even just 1% of the masks are disposed of incorrectly, this would result in 10 million masks per month. Doing the math on it, the weight of each mask is about four grams, [the same as] over 88,000 pounds of plastic entering the environment each month. For reference, the standard semi-truck and trailer are 80,000 pounds.”
Most waste experts will defer to the health specialists on mask longevity, but when broken straps or soiled use demands a new face covering, select recycling programs have stepped up. More on these options below.
Though mask use of any kind has been promoted for limiting COVID-19’s contagion, especially in protecting the most vulnerable in the population, some scientists and doctors have said popular single-layer, washable cloth masks may not be sufficient to protect against the omicron variant. They’ve urged the government to expand access to high-filtration disposable masks such as N95s (the similarly named KN95 falls under Chinese official standards, while masks labeled as “surgical N95s” should still be mostly reserved for health-care settings).
N95s take on both large and small particles and the CDC says they filter about 95% of airborne germs during breathing. If, for instance, an infected person and an uninfected person wear N95 masks and are within six feet of each other, it takes 25 hours for virus transmission, according to the ACGIH Pandemic Response Task Force, well after any personal exchange has presumably wrapped up. Read more on the virtues of N95 masks.
Keep that mask for longer
For starters, N95s may not be as disposable as we think. Their early use only in hospitals meant quick disposal was customary when moving from patient to patient. In wider use, that changes.
One study published in the journal Medicine had volunteers wear N95s for eight hours a day and found that the average filtration efficiency of the masks was still 97% after three days of use.
The N95 price point, more than bulk paper disposable masks, but still approachable for most household budgets, implies stretching their use to several days as well. A box of 20 N95s is running about $40-$45 on Project 95’s site. Similarly, a 10-pack goes for just under $20 at Home Depot. Google searches turn up other availability.
The CDC says that N95 masks can be used up to five times before they’re compromised. But that guidance was intended “for health-care professionals,” says Aaron Collins, a mechanical engineer in Minnesota and self-described “citizen engineer” who addresses mask efficiency on his YouTube channel. “I find that, depending on the mask, you can go longer,” he says.
More important than hard-and-fast guidelines, stretched-out straps and overall mask looseness, often after about a week of wear, is a sign to toss that mask, Collins says.
Experts generally recommend rotating through different masks during the week if you can. When you’re done wearing a mask in your rotation, keep it “in a dry place between uses,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Prevention.
Engineers and scientists are also at work to address the “disposable” challenge.
Decontaminating regular N95 masks so that health-care workers can wear them for more than one day drops costs and environmental waste by at least 75% compared with using a new mask for every encounter with a patient, says Giovanni Traverso, an MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering, a gastroenterologist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and a member of a team that has explored these waste numbers and the development of fully reusable silicone N95 masks.
Can I recycle masks?
The online resource Recycle By City reveals that most municipal programs aren’t accepting paper masks, including N95s, nor rubber gloves and other COVID-linked refuse, although each location varies, so check yours.
There’s a reason for the reluctance. Masks can get caught and wrapped up in the recycling machinery that wasn’t built for them, causing shutdowns and delays as the workers free the masks.
That means privately-run specialty recyclers have to step in.
TerraCycle sells a disposable mask shipping box as part of its return-through-mail recycling program. The box’s $121 price covers the costs of material handling, processing and shipping, which is done through the U.S. Postal Service using the TerraCycle shipping label. Another box through the site is meant for single-use personal protective equipment, or PPE.
The typically plastics-focused, U.K.-based ReWorked has extended its offerings with a campaign called Reclaim The Mask. The company works with individuals, businesses and volunteer groups in efforts to divert plastics, and now masks and gloves, from landfills. Large collections eventually are fed through the company’s “waffle machine” and turned into repurposed Storm Board, a substitution for plywood.
Some retailers are including a recycling option with their mailed masks.
One such seller, Vida, offers a four-layer, FDA-approved mask it says has a filtration efficiency of 94%. It’s manufactured in South Korea, a world-leader in high protection mask technology, according to Vida’s site. The mask, retailing for $25, includes a prepaid return label to send it back for recycling.