Because the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, the sight of masks littering the bottom or discarded within the trash has develop into all too familiar across the country.
One Quebec company, nevertheless, is attempting to keep single-use face masks from ending up within the landfill by recycling them.
For Eric Ethier, Go Zero Recycle president, it doesn’t make sense for the masks to be thrown out once they are “100 per cent recyclable.”
“We’ve got a capability of (recycling) 50 million masks per day, so there isn’t any limit,” he said
“There’s no way we must always send them to garbage.”
“Does it make sense in 2021 that you just buy a disposable product without pondering, ‘how am I going to eliminate it once I can be done with it? Doesn’t make sense.”
In Quebec, the education ministry made surgical masks mandatory in high schools in January and has since provided students with a pair of them every day. The mandate was then widened to incorporate elementary school students.
In an email to Global News, the ministry said it estimates that 318 million masks can be needed for the 2020-2021 school 12 months.
In April, the province’s workplace safety board, also issued a notice requiring the usage of medical masks in all workplaces.
The directives have made disposable masks much more ubiquitous and left many wondering how you can eliminate them.
For Ethier, it’s about making a circular economy — a system that goals to eliminate waste and keep products and materials in use.
The method at Go Zero Recycle involves collecting, disinfecting and sorting used masks, starting with providing a recycling container for the masks.
Customers can select from various-sized boxes to suit their mask-disposal needs. Once the box is full, clients seal it and ship it to a Go Zero collection centre.
Go Zero recycles respirator masks just like the N95, in addition to surgical masks and even masks with see-through windows. It won’t, nevertheless, accept masks from COVID-19 hospital hot zones or from surgery rooms.
After a two-week quarantine period including one week before shipping and one after, masks are placed on a conveyor belt to be disinfected using ultraviolet UVC and UVA lights.
“It’s principally the identical disinfection process they do in hospitals,” Ethier said.
After the disinfection comes the sorting.
The gathering and sorting, Ethier says, is finished mostly by partner organizations, a lot of which practice community enterprise with a social mission geared toward reintegrating individuals with mental or physical challenges into the workforce.
The sorting involves taking apart the masks, after which the components are sent to different partners, in keeping with Ethier.
The aluminum nose pieces are collected and sent to Sinobec in Montreal, which then compresses the metal and sends it to a factory in Saguenay.
The elastics are ground up and sent to Ecofib in Drummondville.
“They currently are recycling used tires and used rubber parts and we integrate the elastic into this process,” Ethier said. “So it’ll give them more flexibility into their manufacturing process. And so they are manufacturing things like rubber mats for farms and the agriculture sector.”
The material or filter a part of the mask is manufactured from polypropylene — a thermoplastic polymer. The filters are sent to Excel Polymer in Bromont.
Ethier said that due to filter’s high air content and high melting point, this a part of the masks must be combined with other recycled propylene — on this case diapers.
“It’s not used diapers,” he clarified. “There’s a few diaper manufacturers here in Canada they usually have regrind. So we take this part — which is recent polypropylene — and we integrate the masks, then it’s ground, melted and made into small plastic pellets.”
The plastic pellets are then sold to a manufacturer who makes items like plastic totes and flower pots which can be identified as being constructed from recycled polypropylene and are recyclable.
“So that they return into the loop,” Ethier said.
“We would like that product to be made locally and we wish a product that can be useful.”
Ethier said Go Zero’s client base is varied and includes municipalities, hospitals, airports, regional transit agencies and smaller businesses too. The hope is to also get school boards involved, but thus far, only a few schools have a recycling or mask collection program in place.
For Ethier there’s an urgency to gather the masks now and he’s calling on governments to indicate more leadership.
“We’re greater than a 12 months because the starting of the pandemic and we’re still questioning if masks are recyclable,” he said. “You realize, they’re investing thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands. What should we do with recycling and what should we do with PPE? There may be an answer.”
Ideally, Go Zero is taking a look at constructing more partnerships with various levels of presidency to make the gathering process more efficient.
“We’re collecting lower than one per cent, a fraction of a per cent of all of the masks which can be used every day in Quebec and Canada. So, yeah, it’s very, very marginal now.”
Why recycling may not be the very best answer
In keeping with waste management expert Karel Ménard, director general of the Quebec Coalition for Ecological Waste Management (FCQGED), most masks in Quebec proceed to be thrown out.
“But there are several municipalities, schools, school service centres that do cope with private firms,” in so-called recycling efforts, he said, adding there are 4 most important firms operating within the province including Go Zero.
Much like Go Zero, one among the opposite firms, Recent Jersey-based TerraCycle, says on its website that collected “plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into recent recycled plastic products.”
The 2 other firms, Ménard says, collect the masks after which sends them to an incinerator in Recent York State for energy recovery purposes.
From an environmental standpoint, incinerating masks isn’t a suitable type of recovery or recycling, says Ménard.
“I even have big problems with it because we’re burning a resource by burning plastic constructed from a non-renewable resource. Even when we get better energy, for me, it stays elimination or disguised incineration.”
He added that burning masks for energy recovery isn’t done in Quebec due to certain laws, which is why they’re sent to Recent York.
On that time, each Ménard and Ethier agree.
“We don’t burn anything,” Ethier said of Go Zero. “Doesn’t make sense to, you realize, when when the fabric is recyclable, very first thing you’ve gotten to do is recycle it.”
Ménard, nevertheless, isn’t convinced recycling the masks, as proposed by TerraCycle or Go Zero, is the fitting answer either.
He says the environmental impact of recycling masks hasn’t been checked out, especially in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, he said if you happen to’re in Montreal and also you’re operating with an organization within the Eastern Townships, your mask can travel to other parts of the province for sorting before coming back to the Townships for processing.
“The mask can travel as much as 1,000 kilometres,” Ménard said. “No one has calculated whether it was good or bad from an environmental perspective, so it is rather hard to find out if indeed there may be a positive or negative impact stemming from recovery programs.”
Then, there’s the query of cost.
“One mask is about 3-3.5 grams and it costs about 15 cents to recycle,” he said.
In keeping with FCQGED calculations, it costs firms roughly $45,000 per tonne to recycle while polypropylene itself is just price around $1,500 per tonne.
“So, we pay a variety of money to supply a cloth that can be in a whole deficit,” Ménard said, adding that based on the variety of masks generated, recycling programs can’t exist without heavy government subsidies.
He’d relatively see governments, be it municipal, provincial or school service centres, invest that cash either in environmental programs or in social teaching programs in class boards.
Moreover, Ménard argued that masks, from an environmental perspective, aren’t a major problem in comparison with single-use plastic bottles or residual waste for instance.
“In Quebec, we still throw out 700 million water bottles per 12 months … whereas masks, depending on the quantity generated, represent around 3,000 to five,000 tonnes, in comparison with 12 million tonnes of residual materials generated in Quebec every 12 months,” he said.
While Ménard agreed that it’s upsetting to see masks littering the streets and understands why they’re the main focus of attention, he doesn’t feel it justifies spending “a fortune on programs for which the environmental impacts usually are not known.”
At this point, Ménard believes the very best option stays to securely eliminate the masks and throw them within the trash can, as advisable by Quebec public health.
“It’s like selecting between two evils,” he said. “You may have to decide on the choice that’s least damaging.”
As an additional precaution, he added that FCQGED recommends cutting the elastics off the masks before throwing them out to avoid animals becoming trapped in them.
For its part, Recyc-Québec, the Crown corporation that oversees recycling and recovery programs within the province, recommends using reusable masks when allowed by public health.
As for disposable masks, Recyc-Québec said they need to never be disposed of within the environment nor put into regular recycling bins.