Where do all the masks go? One Quebec company says it shouldn’t be the garbage

A discarded face mask is shown in this file photo from July 28, 2020. Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, the sight of masks littering the ground or discarded in the trash has become all too familiar across the country.

One Quebec company, however, is trying to keep single-use face masks from ending up in the landfill by recycling them.

For Eric Ethier, Go Zero Recycle president, it doesn’t make sense for the masks to be thrown out when they are “100 per cent recyclable.”

We have a capacity of (recycling) 50 million masks per day, so there is no limit,” he said

“Does it make sense in 2021 that you buy a disposable product without thinking, ‘how am I going to dispose of it once I will be done with it? Doesn’t make sense.”

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In Quebec, the education ministry made surgical masks mandatory in high schools in January and has since provided students with a pair of them each day. The mandate was then widened to include elementary school students.

In an email to Global News, the ministry said it estimates that 318 million masks will be needed for the 2020-2021 school year.

In April, the province’s workplace safety board, also issued a notice requiring the use of medical masks in all workplaces.

The directives have made disposable masks even more ubiquitous and left many wondering how to dispose of them.

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For Ethier, it’s about creating a circular economy — a system that aims to eliminate waste and keep products and materials in use.

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The process at Go Zero Recycle involves collecting, disinfecting and sorting used masks, starting with providing a recycling container for the masks. 

Customers can choose from various-sized boxes to suit their mask-disposal needs. Once the box is full, clients seal it and ship it to a Go Zero collection centre.

Go Zero recycles respirator masks like the N95, as well as surgical masks and even masks with see-through windows. It won’t, however, accept masks from COVID-19 hospital hot zones or from surgery rooms.

After a two-week quarantine period including one week before shipping and one after, masks are put on a conveyor belt to be disinfected using ultraviolet UVC and UVA lights.

“It’s basically the same disinfection process they do in hospitals,” Ethier said.

After the disinfection comes the sorting.

The collection and sorting, Ethier says, is done mostly by partner organizations, many of which practice community enterprise with a social mission aimed at reintegrating people with intellectual or physical challenges into the workforce.

The sorting involves taking apart the masks, after which the components are sent to different partners, according to Ethier.

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The aluminum nose pieces are collected and sent to Sinobec in Montreal, which then compresses the metal and sends it to a factory in Saguenay.

The elastics are ground up and sent to Ecofib in Drummondville.

“They currently are recycling used tires and used rubber parts and we integrate the elastic into this process,” Ethier said. “So it’ll give them more flexibility into their manufacturing process. And they are manufacturing things like rubber mats for farms and the agriculture sector.”

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The fabric or filter part of the mask is made of polypropylene — a thermoplastic polymer. The filters are sent to Excel Polymer in Bromont.

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Ethier said that because of the filter’s high air content and high melting point, this part of the masks has to be combined with other recycled propylene — in this case diapers.

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“It’s not used diapers,” he clarified. “There’s a couple of diaper manufacturers here in Canada and they have regrind. So we take this part — which is new polypropylene — and we integrate the masks, then it is ground, melted and made into small plastic pellets.”

The plastic pellets are then sold to a manufacturer who makes items like plastic totes and flower pots that are identified as being made from recycled polypropylene and are recyclable.

“So they go back into the loop,” Ethier said.

Go Zero wants to ensure the final product is “100 per cent recyclable.”

“We want that product to be made locally and we want a product that will be useful.” 

Ethier said Go Zero’s client base is varied and includes municipalities, hospitals, airports, regional transit agencies and smaller businesses too. The hope is to also get school boards involved, but so far, very few schools have a recycling or mask collection program in place.

For Ethier there’s an urgency to collect the masks now and he’s calling on governments to show more leadership.

We’re more than a year since the beginning of the pandemic and we’re still questioning if masks are recyclable,” he said. “You know, they are investing millions and millions. What should we do with recycling and what should we do with PPE? There is a solution.”

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Ideally, Go Zero is looking at building more partnerships with various levels of government to make the collection process more efficient.

“We are collecting less than one per cent, a fraction of a per cent of all the masks that are used daily in Quebec and Canada. So, yeah, it’s very, very marginal now.”

Why recycling might not be the best answer

According to waste management expert Karel Ménard, director general of the Quebec Coalition for Ecological Waste Management (FCQGED), most masks in Quebec continue to be thrown out.

“But there are several municipalities, schools, school service centres that do deal with private companies,” in so-called recycling efforts, he said, adding there are four main companies operating in the province including Go Zero.

Similar to Go Zero, one of the other companies, New Jersey-based TerraCycle, says on its website that collected “plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into new recycled plastic products.”

The two other companies, Ménard says, collect the masks and then sends them to an incinerator in New York State for energy recovery purposes.

From an environmental standpoint, incinerating masks is not an acceptable form of recovery or recycling, says Ménard.

“I have big problems with it because we’re burning a resource by burning plastic made from a non-renewable resource. Even if we recover energy, for me, it remains elimination or disguised incineration.”

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He added that burning masks for energy recovery is not done in Quebec because of certain laws, which is why they are sent to New York.

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On that point, both Ménard and Ethier agree.

We don’t burn anything,” Ethier said of Go Zero. “Doesn’t make sense to, you know, when when the material is recyclable, first thing you have to do is recycle it.”

Ménard, however, isn’t convinced recycling the masks, as proposed by TerraCycle or Go Zero, is the right answer either.

He says the environmental impact of recycling masks hasn’t been looked at, especially when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

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As an example, he said if you’re in Montreal and you’re operating with a company in the Eastern Townships, your mask can travel to other parts of the province for sorting before coming back to the Townships for processing.

“The mask can travel up to 1,000 kilometres,” Ménard said. “Nobody has calculated whether it was good or bad from an environmental point of view, so it is very hard to determine if indeed there is a positive or negative impact stemming from recovery programs.”

Then, there’s the question of cost.

“One mask is about 3-3.5 grams and it costs about 15 cents to recycle,” he said.

According to FCQGED calculations, it costs companies roughly $45,000 per tonne to recycle while polypropylene itself is only worth around $1,500 per tonne.

“So, we pay a lot of money to produce a material that will be in a complete deficit,” Ménard said, adding that based on the number of masks generated, recycling programs can’t exist without heavy government subsidies.

He’d rather see governments, be it municipal, provincial or school service centres, invest that money either in environmental programs or in social education programs in school boards.

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Furthermore, Ménard argued that masks, from an environmental point of view, aren’t a significant problem compared to single-use plastic bottles or residual waste for example.

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“In Quebec, we still throw out 700 million water bottles per year … whereas masks, depending on the amount generated, represent around 3,000 to 5,000 tonnes, compared to 12 million tonnes of residual materials generated in Quebec every year,” he said.

While Ménard agreed that it’s upsetting to see masks littering the streets and understands why they’re the focus of attention, he doesn’t feel it justifies spending “a fortune on programs for which the environmental impacts are not known.”

At this point, Ménard believes the best option remains to safely dispose of the masks and throw them in the trash can, as recommended by Quebec public health.

“It’s like choosing between two evils,” he said. “You have to choose the option that is least damaging.”

As an extra precaution, he added that FCQGED recommends cutting the elastics off the masks before throwing them out to avoid animals becoming trapped in them.

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What to do with all those disposable masks in Quebec schools

For its part, Recyc-Québec, the Crown corporation that oversees recycling and recovery programs in the province, recommends using reusable masks when allowed by public health.

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As for disposable masks, Recyc-Québec said they should never be disposed of in the environment nor put into regular recycling bins.

“Companies, some of which are from Quebec, offer the recovery and treatment of disposable masks,” said spokesperson Brigitte Geoffroy.
“Therefore, when this type of service is available, the procedural masks can be deposited in recycling boxes provided specifically for this material.”

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