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Coronavirus: Quebec school boards scramble to set up recycling programs for disposable masks

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Mandatory mask regulation in Quebec high schools could be costly for environment' Coronavirus: Mandatory mask regulation in Quebec high schools could be costly for environment
WATCH: Under the Quebec government's new mandatory mask measures in Quebec high schools, cloth masks are banned. Instead high school students are given two disposable blue masks per day. But as Global’s Olivia O'Malley reports, with no recycling plan in place just yet, some worry millions of masks could end up in the landfill. – Jan 22, 2021

High school students resumed in-person classes this week with new COVID-19 rules. Cloth masks are now banned and students are required to wear disposable surgical masks provided by the government.

The Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB) says it has handed some 21,000 masks daily and that those masks end up in the garbage when the final bell rings.

“Just roughly calculating 100 days till the end of June, we’re looking at 2.1 million masks,” said LBPSB assistant director general, Carol Heffernan.

The Quebec government is encouraging schools to collect the masks so they don’t end up in landfills.

In a statement, the Ministry of Education said it sent a list of companies that can recycle masks, specifying that the government would absorb the costs.

Read more: Coronavirus: Quebec to cover cost of recovering and recycling disposable masks from high schools

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Heffernan says it would have been nice to have a system in place before the disposable masks became mandatory, but added the board is hoping to start recycling as soon as possible.

“We’re waiting for quotes from the different companies because it could be upwards of $100,000,” she said.

The English Montreal School Board has not started recycling masks either, but says a plan is in the works.

“We’re happy to know that the government is going to be covering these costs,” said EMSB chair Joe Ortona. “We’ve been saying all along that they should be covering all of our COVID-related costs.”

Read more: Quebec recommends against using portable air purifiers in schools

Leo Halverson, a Grade 8 student at PGLO in Outremont, said he doesn’t know if his school has any plans to start recycling, but he’s worried by what he’s seen so far.

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“It’s a lot of waste,” he said. “I walk around and leaving school…you just see masks all over the ground.

“So already it’s a lot of masks out in the environment from day one… if people actually just throw them away, they’re just going to go to the landfill.”

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And while Halverson admitted it was easier to breathe in the surgical masks, he wasn’t convinced that was a good thing.

“It’s probably due to the huge gaps on the sides of the masks when I wear them cause they’re all way too big for everyone,” he said.

He questions how much protection they’re getting from the virus, if the masks don’t fit properly.

Click to play video 'Tam adds layer to advice about face masks' Tam adds layer to advice about face masks
Tam adds layer to advice about face masks – Nov 3, 2020

A group of climate-activist parents has created an online petition against the government’s disposable-mask mandate. They claim cloth masks are just as effective, and more environmentally-friendly.

“Available science does not show that procedural masks are better than three-ply cloth masks, that are made from tightly-woven fabrics,” said Dr. Kelly Martin, an organizer with For Our Kids Montreal, as well as being a physician with a masters in epidemiology.

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“Even more worrisome, procedural masks can be too big for smaller faces, resulting in a poor fit and providing less protection from COVID-19 than well fitting sized three-ply cloth masks.”

The group argues investing in reusable masks also makes more sense environmentally and economically.

They want the government to allow students to wear their own clean three-ply reusable face masks or invest in reusable face masks rather than pay for the purchase and recycling of millions of disposable masks.

“We hope … the government will actually consider the environmental impacts of this decision. We know that they’re trying to protect our communities but this doesn’t seem like a very effective policy,” said Alayne Moody, also with For Our Kids.

Read more: Coronavirus: More Montreal communities adopting PPE recycling

On Tuesday, Québec solidaire MNA Ruba Ghazal filed a petition with the Quebec government.

She wants to ensure the waste is disposed of in an eco-responsible manner.

“We are skeptical about all these companies that take these masks and they don’t only take it because they love environment, they charge a lot of money,” she said.

It is estimated that 85 million masks will be used by high school students by the end of the school year.

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