260,000 tossed masks recycled for furniture, playground surfacing — thanks to Mohawk College's ingenuity

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Mohawk College in Hamilton has diverted more than 260,000 masks from landfills, not even a year after the start of its mask recycling program.  (Mohawk College - image credit)
Mohawk College in Hamilton has diverted more than 260,000 masks from landfills, not even a year after the start of its mask recycling program. (Mohawk College - image credit)

Allison Maxted couldn't help but notice the extra garbage being generated by efforts to stay safe as it became clear the COVID-19 pandemic would be around for awhile.

"You shouldn't speak up against public health measures," said Maxted, manager of sustainability at Mohawk College in Hamilton. However, she said, "the increased prevalence of waste from [masks] and more single-use packing was pretty discouraging."

In the Hamilton area, It's unclear how many masks are being discarded daily.

But according to an international study published in June 2020 in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers from Portugal and Canada who focused on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) determined the world was throwing out three million masks alone every minute. The researchers also raised concerns about PPE ending up in landfills, possibly causing environmental contamination.

So when a student submitted an idea to Maxted's office suggesting the college offer recycling of disposable masks, she took it on with enthusiasm, launching the program last summer.

Since then, the college has diverted more than 260,000 masks from landfills. It's among several local projects trying to defray the increased waste during the pandemic..

Masks become plastic for useful items

Maxted recently told CBC the college buys zero-waste boxes from Terracyle, a company that specializes in recycling materials that aren't accepted in blue-box pickup. The boxes are placed at campus exits, then shipped to the company when they get full.

Maxted said the polyethylene that makes up the bulk of a mask is recycled into rigid plastic and used for decking and outdoor furniture, the ear straps are used for playground resurfacing, and the nose wires are metal so are removed and recycled in the usual way.

The college has spent $30,000 so far on the program, including numerous boxes that have not yet been used. Each individual box costs between $223 and $243 before tax.

"There are currently no plans to end the program, however we will continue to reassess this based on the masking environment as things move forward," Maxted said.

She said the college has made other changes that create more waste in the name of COVID-19 safety. More food-service items have protective wrapping and are pre-packaged, compared to buffet-style service in the past, for example. There was also a time that the school's water refill stations were closed, leading to increased consumption of bottled water.

But, she said, overall, the college "has really doubled down on climate action during the pandemic," including new commitments in its strategic plan released last year.

In a section marked "aspirations," the document promises the college "will continue to focus on climate action to protect our environment [and] to ensure that all our work and business processes include a sustainability and climate change lens."

Maxted also pointed to the college's Ron Joyce Centre, Canada's largest net-zero building, and continuing building retrofits and vehicle electrification as big strides.

"We're trying to avoid something called 'carbon lock-in,' when you invest in the wrong infrastructure, making sure none of the decisions we make today are going to make it harder in the future."

Mask waste evident in community cleanup

Mask recycling is also a hot topic at Burlington Green, an organization that drives environmental awareness and initiatives in the Ontario city.

Program manager Marwa Selim said the mask waste problem has been obvious to volunteers in the organization's annual Clean Up Green Up Program, where litter is cleared from various areas of the city.

"People are saying they find a lot of masks, especially near schools," Selim told CBC Hamilton.

Jessica Maxwell/CBC
Jessica Maxwell/CBC

She said 2021 was a slow year for the program due to COVID-19 safety concerns, but this year, about 10,000 people have signed up to retrieve litter from more than 75 locations.

"There is a greater accumulation of litter in our communities due to the fact that fewer people (particularly schools) participated in recent years due to COVID," she later wrote in an email.

As a response, Burlington Green has partnered with the Burlington Centre (formerly called the Burlington Mall) to collect and recycle items that can't go in the blue bin, including used PPE, on May 14

The contact-free drive-thru component will be at the Fairview Street-facing parking lot at the Burlington Centre from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET, when "volunteers will gladly accept a variety of items to be properly recycled," says Burlington Green's website.

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