Behind the Mask: How mask recycling works

Baljot Rai ’24


Over the past 15 months, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) of all sorts have become rather prominent objects in our day-to-day life, the most common example in our lives being masks. Since the start of this pandemic, wearing a mask in public has become a customary action, be it disposable or re-usable.

Ever since earlier this year, disposable masks have become an increasingly fundamental aspect of our lives. All students at St. Paul’s High School have been wearing triple-layer medical grade disposable masks. To prevent these masks from ending up in landfills, the Environmental Action Committee decided to address the problem.

Throughout the school, various TerraCycle mask recycling bins have been set up to allow for proper disposal. TerraCycle is a private U.S. based company, with its headquarters in Trenton, New Jersey. This company recycles difficult to process materials into new, raw materials that can be used in new objects. TerraCycle has a multi-step recycling program for disposable masks specifically.

The first step is the collection process. All PPE are collected in TerraCycle’s Zero Waste boxes. Once the box fills up, it is sealed and sent to a TerraCycle recycling location in whichever country the PPE was collected in. Next is the check-in process. When the sealed box arrives at a TerraCycle Material Recover Facility (MRF), it is checked-in and weighed. Then, the boxes are quarantined for a minimum of 72 hours, to ensure the protection of the staff members who will be dealing with the material.

TerraCycle stores all disposable masks until appropriate volumes of material for processing have been received. The waste is then sorted into various different categories based on material composition (rubbers, metals, non-woven plastic, elastane, etc.) by utilizing a wide array of sorting technologies including manual sortation, size separation, sink/float, optical, air density, gravity, magnetic, etc. 

The different materials are then sent to third-party processing partners, which recycle the material into usable forms. Non-woven plastics, such as non-woven polypropylene, which is the fabric used for filters in face masks, is recycled into plastic pellets and granules. Further, the metals in the masks are manually removed and sent for smelting into new bar stock and metal sheeting. The rubber portion of the ear-loops in a disposable mask is ground into a fine powder, and mixed with recycled plastics as an additive to provide flexibility and malleability to products.

Each part of the mask is put to use, making this program beneficial for our Earth and very eco-friendly. Clearly, simply recycling our masks goes an extremely long way in protecting our environment. We must all do our part to protect our Earth!

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