Can Covid-19 Masks be Recycled?

The use of face masks or coverings by the general public has been recommended by health officials to minimize the risk of transmissions, with authorities either requiring their use in certain settings, such as on public transport and in shops, or universally in public.

But as the masks are a mix of different plastics, the general consensus is that, no, they cannot be recycled. The effort that it would take to take them apart and sort the different plastics and the metal nose piece is said to be too much work.

So can masks be recycled? The short answer is yes, but not in the standard recycling bin. Here are 4 companies that say yes, masks can be recycled into useful products. While they have accepted the challenge and have the correct equipment and processes to show good results, your local recycler will not be happy if you put them in the blue bin.

Masks and plastic bags stuck in standard plastic recycling equipment

The problem with not recycling masks.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to cause chaos around the world; Covid waste, including masks, gloves & other PPE, discarded improperly into our environment becomes more prevalent. Estimates say globally we are using 129 billion disposable masks & 65 billion plastic gloves every month. 

So it’s not a surprise to see single-use masks laying in the street and ultimately, in nature. Masks are being found in rivers and lakes, even in the ocean, and on beaches far from civilization. The easy answer for many is to use a cloth mask that is washable and reusable, like the masks made by Rescue Plastic, which are made from recycled ocean-bound plastic.

But for doctors and nurses, that may not be an option. The CDC says “cloth face coverings are not considered PPE because their capability to protect HCP is unknown.”

used masks and plastic floating in the ocean
Masks and otther plastic seen floating in the ocean.

Without falling into the mask debate, we are looking at how the masks can be recycled to minimize the environmental impact of the single-use masks that many are required to use.

The WWF has stated concerns about the incorrect disposal of these kinds of single-use masks, saying “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 4 grams, equaling over 88,000lbs of plastic entering the environment each month. For reference, the standard semi-truck and trailer are 80,000lbs in the United States.

These masks are typically made from plastics like polypropylene and do not biodegrade. This plastic is projected to take upwards of 400 years to disintegrate, which means 15 generations later, the masks will be almost gone, if we stop adding them to nature today.

Plaxtil – Châtellerault, France

This French company was started in the fall of 2019 with the goal of shredding clothing to recycle them. Then Covid-19 had begun to cause chaos in the world. Seeing an opportunity, Plaxtil set up makes collection boxes at local supermarkets in June. Then they quarantined the masks for four days and began the process of giving the masks a second life. The first batch was an experiment to see if they could actually deliver on their idea.

After the masks spend 30 seconds going through a UV machine, the masks are manually cut apart and sorted into their different materials. Then the parts are sent thru a shredder that reduces them to a fluffy cotton like material.

Plaxtil recycling used masks
A worker at Plaxtil loads used masks into a machine while wearing a face shield made from the recycled masks

The fluffy plastic can then be mixed with binders and other additives, melted and made into many different plastic parts. Plaxtil is making face shields and other plastic tools needed for fighting the virus.

With over 70,000 masks recycled since June, one of their requirements is to always source the masks locally to keep their cities clean.

Kim Ha-neul – Uiwang, South Korea

South Korean furniture design student Kim Ha-neul has come up with an eco-friendly solution, melting single-use polypropylene masks to make stools he calls “Stack and Stack”.

In June, Kim set up a mask collection box at his school, the Kaywon University of Art and Design in Uiwang city, south of Seoul.“Plastic is recyclable, so why don’t we recycle face masks, which are made of plastic?” the 23-year-old said. He has collected more than 10,000 used masks and has received more than a ton of defective ones from a factory.

Kim keeps them in storage for at least four days to lessen the risk of coronavirus transmission. Then, removing elastic bands and wires, he uses a heat gun over the masks in a mold, melting them down at temperatures over 300 degrees Celsius (570 degrees Fahrenheit).

Kim’s graduation exhibition was the three-legged stools 45cm (18 inches) recycled from white, pink, blue, and black masks.

He plans to make other furniture pieces from the recycled masks such as a chair, table, or some lights. He is also urging the government and private companies to recycle face masks by setting up a separate box for their collection.

Though the stools are not yet for sale, fellow students were impressed by the idea and rough-surfaced design.

TerraCycle – New Jersey, USA

In Aug 2020, Subaru of America partnered with TerraCycle to include personal protective equipment recycling in response to rising COVID-19-induced waste. Subaru, which has a vast US network of offices and automotive dealerships, adopted TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes to collect disposable masks and gloves across more than 20 offices nationwide, including ports, regional training centers, and the automaker’s headquarters in Camden, NJ. Zero Waste Boxes provide a convenient recycling solution for all types of single-use PPE, which are not recyclable through conventional recycling facilities.

TerraCycle is a private U.S. recycling business headquartered in Trenton, New Jersey. They primarily run a volunteer-based recycling platform to collect typically non-recyclable pre-consumer and post-consumer waste and then partners with corporate donors or municipalities to turn it into raw material to be used in new products.

Terracycle mask recycling boxes

This company was created in 2001 with the goal of ”Eliminating the Idea of Waste”. Working in 21 countries, they tackle the issue from many angles. TerraCycle has found that nearly everything we touch can be recycled with their first-of-their-kind recycling platforms.

Leading companies work with Terracycle to take hard-to-recycle materials, such as ocean plastic, masks, and gloves, and turn them into new products, and the Loop platform aims to change the way the world shops with favorite brands in refillable packaging offered with convenience and style.

The company licenses its name to manufacturers of roughly 200 products made using its raw material.

Reworked Products – United Kingdom

This company decided to create a call to action, using the campaign Reclaim The Mask, for all businesses to take responsibility for their customers, staff & dependent’s PPE waste. The aim to reduce the number of masks & gloves going to landfill or ending up in the environment.

Reworked Products part of the solution is to provide a full-service PPE & covid-waste recycling process. Businesses & establishments can house dedicated, health & safety secure bins where PPE can be disposed of. Reworked then uses their innovative recycling technologies to recover the waste materials completely. 

While Reworked Products is using a similar system to disinfect, sort, and shred the masks, their final product is a little bigger. The plastic mix is taken to the board mill to make one of their main products the Stormboard. The press lays two ‘outer coatings’ and a core, before using heat to fuse everything into a durable 4×8 foot sheet.

reworked products' plastic sheets made from recycled masks and other plastic products
4×8 foot sheets of recycled masks and plastic, in different colors and patterns.

Originally designed as a replacement for wood plyboard to help reduce our demand and overuse of wood. This versatile material is now used in a huge array of products by many joiners, shopfitters, building merchants, and general home use. It is available in different colors and patterns and can be cut, drilled, and used in many applications that particleboard can be, but with the advantage that this will not absorb water and doesn’t swell up and fall apart.

Reworked Products waste and recycling partners now provide the majority of the plastics that make up the board and in turn utilize the board across the companies and customers from where it came. Completely closing the loop.

India’s University of Petroleum and Energy – India

The most common way to get rid of tires is a process called pyrolysis, and now adapting the process, they have successfully used this process on the used PPE and single-use masks.

The pyrolysis process, used to convert solid waste into fuels, is the most commonly used technique. Pyrolysis is a thermo-chemical plastic waste treatment technique that can be an alternative to plastic dumping & pollution problems. It uses high heat, in the absence of oxygen at high pressure and temperature for a small duration to extract liquid fuel from the plastic, which can be used for the generation of energy for any industrial applications.

pyrolysis process to recycle masks into fuel

Because of the lack of oxygen, the products do not burn, but they are separated into their former elements. The liquid fuel that is derived from these products is very clean, not containing any heavy metal or contaminates. Some of this fuel can be redirected back and burned to heat the next batch, thereby making this system supply its own fuel and more.

This chemical recycling method which unlike mechanical recycling utilizes mixtures of waste plastics is an environmentally friendly alternative to incineration and inefficient landfilling. This method is available all around the world, but we need to work together to make it more common knowledge, so we can recycle more things this way, recycling masks, recycling wind turbine blades, and more.

Conclusion of Recycled Masks

The reason your local recycler cannot take your masks is that their equipment was not designed for them. They are built to handle bottles and larger plastic products, and these masks can get caught and wrapped up in the machinery causing shutdowns and delays as the workers cut the masks off.

It is necessary to note that people are still learning that plastic bags are not recyclable in the standard blue bin- these cause the same issues. Take the bags to your local Target or search on to find a place that has the specific machinery to handle the bags.

plastic bags and masks stuck in recycling equipment
More bags and plastic masks stuck in standard recycling equipment – dont put them in the bin!

Check out a full list of How To Recycle and learn what you can put in the bin and what you need have to discard. End hopeful recycling as it only causes more issues for the local recycler. We need to be smarter than the generation before us, to fix the problems that we face today.

If you found this article interesting, I bet you have a friend that would enjoy reading it too. Thanks for your time and I’m always open to suggestions and corrections if you find mistakes.

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