Reducing the Environmental Impact of Face Masks
By Christina P. Hooton
Since the beginning of the pandemic, disposable face masks have become a part of everyday life as we know it. It’s estimated that 129 billion face masks are used globally every month.1 While these are a proven and necessary way to curb the spread of COVID-19, according to data shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they are also adding to the already significant amount of plastic pollution throughout the world. 2,3
A Plastic Problem
Although most disposable face masks appear to be made from cloth, they’re usually produced from non-woven polymer fabrics made of polypropylene or polycarbonate. The typical disposable blue mask has three layers: an outer layer of non-woven fibers, a filtering middle layer, and a soft inner layer. The filter in the middle is made by forcing melted polymer through tiny nozzles using high-speed blowing gas.
As these disposable masks make their way into the environment, they sometimes pollute waterways or are disposed of in landfills. Like other plastics, they can also break down into microplastics, particles smaller than 5 mm.
Plastics and microplastics are a known threat to the health of marine species, a large part of our food supply. They also enter the food we eat and significantly contribute to climate change through carbon emissions. And, in a rather perverse twist, these plastic particles are also known to spread microbes such as invasive pathogens.4
One solution to this growing problem might be for everyone to wear reusable instead of disposable masks, especially for personal activities like grocery shopping. If a reusable cloth mask offers the right level of protection for a given situation, it must be washed at least daily, and several must be on hand so one is always ready to wear.
However, according to CDC data, a cloth mask alone blocks only 51.4 percent of airborne cough particles compared to properly worn surgical masks that block 77 percent of airborne particles. Wearing both a cloth and a surgical mask proves even more effective, blocking 85.4 percent of particles.5 Laboratories and other workplace settings may require the level of protection these disposable face masks provide.
“It’s a very simple process. The box is shipped direct to the customer. They assemble the box and then they start collecting.”
- Madeleine Chadwick, General Management, Leadership Development Program, Thermo Fisher Scientific
Face Mask Recycling
It may seem obvious to dispose of your face mask along with all other recyclable materials. However, face masks and other forms of single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) are not easy to recycle and may be too expensive for local recyclers to collect. It is not likely that your current waste management solution is offering this recycling service.
The world needs an economical, efficient solution for recycling disposable face masks as safety restrictions from the pandemic persist. Face mask recycling programs present an attractive option especially for organizations like universities and colleges trying to establish and maintain sustainability targets.
TerraCycle, a company known for its ability to recycle challenging materials, offers a mask recycling program through the Fisher Scientific channel. To start, an institution purchases the TerraCycle Disposable Masks Zero Waste Box, a cardboard box clearly marked for face mask disposal and recycling, and places it in their facility.
“It’s a very simple process. The box is shipped direct to the customer. They assemble the box and then they start collecting,” said Madeleine Chadwick, General Management, Leadership Development Program, Thermo Fisher Scientific.
The boxes come in three sizes with the largest option accommodating up to 2,100 masks. Once the box is full, the institution seals and ships it back to TerraCycle where face masks are recycled and processed into new materials. Chadwick said, “The price of the box includes shipping costs and the recycling service.”
Although the program is not intended to recycle conventional medical waste, the boxes are quarantined upon arrival for a minimum of 72 hours to protect the employees that handle the waste. Items are hand-sorted, and any visibly contaminated masks are removed and forwarded to third-party facilities for processing and recycling.
Turning Trash into Treasure
The mask waste is collected until there is enough volume to perform processing, then sorted based on material composition. Metal wires or nosepieces are removed from the masks, grouped together, and processed separately, for example.
The materials are then sent for third-party processing where they are recycled into usable forms like plastic pellets and granules. The polypropylene mixture typically found in face masks is turned into a raw material used in plastic lumber and composite decking applications. That material is then sold to manufacturers for the creation of a variety of new products, including outdoor furniture, shipping pallets, and more.
It’s encouraging to think that some of these recycled face masks could one day become something useful like park benches or picnic tables that people will freely gather on and around once pandemic restrictions are lifted. Fisher Scientific customers alone have already diverted more than 735,000 face masks from landfills using this program.
The TerraCycle program offers organizations a flexible, easy-to-set-up solution. Boxes can be placed in high-traffic areas along with hand sanitizers to reinforce both safety and sustainability. They can be especially useful in areas where a new disposable face mask is required upon every entry, for example outside a research lab. The program was recently expanded to include boxes for gloves, eyewear, and other hard-to-recycle items.
It’s unclear how much longer we’ll be wearing face masks. Even after the pandemic, face mask use might be more prevalent than before, especially during periods like flu season or when traveling. One thing that’s absolutely clear is the need to understand and mitigate their environmental impact, one face mask at a time.
Visit fishersci.com/terracycle-mask-box or fishersci.com/terracycle-glove-box for more information about TerraCycle recycling opportunities.
- Prata, J.C., Silva, A.L.P., Walker T.R., Duarte, A.C., and Rocha-Santos, T. (2020). COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions on the Use and Management of Plastics. Environ. Sci. Technol. 54(13), 7760–7765.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, November 20). Science Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html
- Schnurr R.E.J., Alboiu V., Chaudhary M., Corbett R.A., Quanz M.E., Sankar K., Srain H.S., Thavarajah V., Xanthos D., Walker T.R. (2018). Reducing marine pollution from single-use plastics (SUPs): a review. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 137:157–171.
- Fadare, O. O., & Okoffo, E. D. (2020). Covid-19 face masks: A potential source of microplastic fibers in the environment. Science of The Total Environment,737, 140279. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140279
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, February 19). Maximizing Fit for Cloth and Medical Procedure Masks to Improve Performance and Reduce SARS-CoV-2 Transmission and Exposure, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7007e1.htm
Christina P. Hooton is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.