Quebec to cover cost of recovering and recycling disposable masks from high schools

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QUEBEC — The Quebec government is inviting high schools to collect the disposable medical masks being distributed to students so they don’t end up in landfills.

About 500,000 blue masks are being used daily by students across the province.

Quebec announced that high school students and teachers would be given two procedural masks a day when classes resumed Jan. 18, but the province didn't say what would happen to the 85 million masks expected to be used before the end of the school year.

Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge said Tuesday that expenses for the recovery and recycling of the masks will be covered by the provincial government.

Genevieve Cote, a spokeswoman for Roberge, said young people are very sensitive to environmental issues, and the government is confident the masks won't end up polluting the environment.

"Companies, many of which are from Quebec ... offer the recovery and treatment of disposable masks," Cote said.

The federation representing Quebec school administrations says the recovery effort could have been organized before students returned to class.

Only some schools have boxes available to collect soiled masks, Nicolas Prevost, the federation’s president, said. And many students are not comfortable discarding them in the trash.

“We would have liked that we could set up the distribution (of the masks) and the recovery at the same time,” Prevost said. “It would have been simpler and, above all, more beneficial for the planet.”

A Liberal member of the legislature, Frantz Benjamin, estimated the mask recovery operation would cost between $30 million and $35 million, and school commissions would need financial help to recoup the costs.

In May, environmental groups sounded the alarm about disposable masks becoming a source of pollution. One group focused on waste management said Tuesday that aid announced by the province must be contingent on demonstrating the masks are being recycled.

Denis Blaquiere, the president of the organization, said the majority of companies involved in recovering disposable masks send them out of province to be incinerated, although it is possible to recycle the main components of the mask in the province.

Disposable masks are typically made from a mixture of synthetic fibres and cellulose, a rubber band and a piece of metal. Environmentalists say they can endanger wildlife and, like wipes, clog pipes in city wastewater treatment systems.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2021.

Caroline Plante, The Canadian Press