260,000 discarded masks recycled for furniture, playground surfacing – thanks to the ingenuity of Mohawk College

Allison Maxted couldn’t help but notice the additional waste generated from efforts to stay safe as it became clear the COVID-19 pandemic would be here for quite some time.

“You shouldn’t speak out against public health measures,” said Maxted, sustainability manager at Mohawk College in Hamilton. However, she said, “the increased prevalence of waste from [masks] and more single-use packaging was quite disheartening.”

In the Hamilton area, it is unknown how many masks are discarded daily.

But according to an international study published in June 2020 in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers from Portugal and Canada which focused on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) determined that the world alone throws away three million masks every minute. Researchers have also raised concerns about PPE ending up in landfills, which could lead to environmental contamination.

So when a student submitted an idea to the Maxted office suggesting that the college offer disposable mask recycling, she enthusiastically accepted it, launching the program last summer.

Since then, the college has diverted more than 260,000 masks from landfills. He is part of several local projects trying to offset the increase in waste during the pandemic.

Masks become plastic for useful items

Maxted recently told CBC that 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 the exit of the campus, then shipped to the company when they are full.

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

The college has spent $30,000 so far on the program, including many boxes that have yet to be used. Each individual box costs between $223 and $243 before taxes.

“There are currently no plans to end the program, but 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 catering items have protective packaging and are pre-packaged, compared to buffet-style service in the past, for example. There was also a time when school water filling stations were closed, leading to an increase in bottled water consumption.

But, she said, overall the college “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 that the college “will continue to focus on climate action to protect our environment [and] to ensure that all of our work and business processes include a sustainability and climate change lens.”

Maxted also highlighted the college’s Ron Joyce Center, Canada’s largest net-zero building, and continued building renovations and vehicle electrification as big strides.

“We try to avoid what’s called ‘carbon lock-in’, when you invest in the wrong infrastructure, making sure that none of the decisions we make today will make it harder in the future. .”

Obvious mask waste during community cleanup

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

Program manager Marwa Selim said the issue of mask waste was evident to volunteers at the organization’s annual Clean Up Green Up program, where waste is removed from various parts of the city.

“People say they find a lot of masks, especially near schools,” Selim told CBC Hamilton.

A mask lies on the ground in the courtyard of Mohawk College. The Hamilton school’s mask recycling program is helping to counter an increase in litter caused by the pandemic. (Jessica Maxwell/CBC)

She said 2021 has been a slow year for the program due to safety concerns related to COVID-19, but this year around 10,000 people have signed up to pick up waste from more than 75 pitches.

“There is a greater accumulation of waste in our communities due to the fact that fewer people (especially schools) have participated in recent years due to COVID,” she later wrote in an email. mail.

In response, Burlington Green partnered with the Burlington Center (formerly known as Burlington Mall) to collect and recycle items that cannot go in the blue bin, including used PPE, on May 14.

The contactless drive-thru component will be in the Fairview Street parking lot at the Burlington Center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET, when “volunteers will gladly accept a variety of items for proper recycling,” says Burlington Green website.