1.6 billion facemasks entered the ocean in 2020. Here’s how you can recycle them!

A new study from environmental conservationists and researchers OceansAsia has estimated 1.6 billion disposable masks have found their way into the world’s oceans since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While this figure equates to just 3% of the 52 billion disposable face masks produced in 2020, it also adds up to nearly 5,000 tonnes of plastic pollution. Single-use facemasks are commonly made of polypropylene, which breaks up easily into microplastics. Face masks are considered ‘non-recyclable’ in traditional kerbside recycling, which means they’ll need to be disposed of in general waste where they’ll go to landfill and it is estimated that it will take over 450 years for these masks to breakdown.

With the ongoing spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, health authorities are continuing to recommend that consumer-facing staff should wear disposable surgical masks for hygiene, and regularly change these daily. This adds up to a huge amount of waste, which can’t be avoided due to health and hygiene problems. 

Infographic showing different types of rubbish going into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Source: Visual Capitalists

There is a solution! Face masks can in fact be recycled through a TerraCycle Zero Waste Box, which can be purchased by any business or individual in Australia and New Zealand.

How does TerraCycle recycle face masks?

All of the PPE waste sent to TerraCycle is quarantined for at least two months. It is then manually sorted and shredded, the metal from the nose clips is smelted and the plastic is melted down into low-grade plastic pellets. The recycled pellet material is then used by third parties to manufacture a variety of new products including outdoor furniture, park benches and decking. 

Here’s a video showing how TerraCycle recycles face masks:

Our need for face masks isn’t slowing down. We caught up with Johanna Bouniol, Quality Risk Safety and Environment Manager at Sofitel Melbourne on Collins Street, who has been going to amazing lengths to reduce their environmental impact, including recycling thousands of face masks on behalf of all of their staff through the TerraCycle Zero Waste Box.

Johanna shared a few of her tips for how people within businesses can begin to build sustainable initiatives.                                                                                                        

  • There needs to be a dedicated team that focuses on sustainability with the aim to find solutions to reduce waste and most importantly to prevent waste first and foremost.
  • It is crucial to have efficient communication with the wider employees as it is everyone’s responsibility to reach the desired outcomes for sustainability because it needs to be a whole hotel approach
  • Engage with different departments to encourage active participation in daily sustainability initiatives
  • Start small. At Sofitel, we started with the low hanging fruit – small steps and after a while, you will make giant leaps. 

Find more advice on how to approach your employer about sustainable workplace initiatives. It doesn’t even have to be your own workplace; contact your local council or neighbourhood small businesses to see if they’d be interested in recycling masks on behalf of the community.

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