Early in the pandemic, when Marc Poirier walked the streets around the Québec City Convention Centre, where he serves as director of building management and event support, he was struck by how many face masks he saw strewn in the garbage, an unfortunate by-product of trying to curb the spread of COVID-19. And as groups met and staff worked at the convention center, Poirier was dismayed by how many masks ended up in the trash. As a center that makes sustainability a top priority, the fact that the masks would end up in a landfill wasn’t in keeping with its zero-waste goals.
The American Chemical Society estimates that around 129 billion disposable masks are used every month around the world, exacerbating a different manmade crisis: plastic pollution.
Poirier set to work to find a company that would recycle the used masks at the center. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. Disposable face masks are made out of different materials — polypropylene plastic, elastic, and metal — and it’s a painstaking process to separate the different parts for recycling.
Around the world, companies and researchers are trying to give used disposable masks a second life. According to phys.org, researchers in Australia are working on transforming single-use COVID masks into road material; in the U.S., some companies recycle them into benches; and in France, they become the material for floor mats for cars.
Poirier found a company to partner with right in Québec, Go Zero Recycle, that has developed a process to disinfect and separate each part of the mask so that it can be recycled by specialized recycling centers.
Go Zero sends the convention center mask collection boxes — there are currently five in use at the center right now — and picks them up when they are full. “They even offer traceability,” Emilie Belisle, assistant director and new communication officer for Québec City Convention Centre, told Convene. “You only need to enter the box number given at pick-up to track your box in the recycling cycle.”
The masks go on to serve a second life, converted into plastic pellets to be used for other products — one step closer to bringing a circular economy solution to a social and environmental issue.
How Go Zero Recycles Disposable Masks
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.