About face: Recycling initiative aims to reduce disposable mask waste

// College of Engineering

Photo of TerraCycle Zero Waste Boxes

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, people in countries such as China, Japan and South Korea adopted the custom of wearing disposable three-ply surgical face masks for many reasons, including protecting themselves from illness, allergies, pollution and more.

While beneficial, the billions of those disposable masks in daily use around the world also are creating a new problem: Tons of plastic waste.

It adds up: Since the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s three-month pandemic-induced closure began to relax in June 2020, for example, faculty, staff and students in the College of Engineering have used and disposed of more than 50,000 masks, says Jesse Decker, director of safety for the college.

Beginning in the spring 2021 semester, however, a new recycling initiative will enable the College of Engineering to divert its mask waste away from the landfill. The college will install TerraCycle Zero Waste Boxes near entrances of six of its buildings to collect used three-ply surgical, dust masks, KN95 and N95 masks. When the boxes fill up, the college will ship them back to TerraCycle—a global company that collects hard-to-recycle items and upcycles them into a variety of consumer products. The company melts down and pelletizes the masks for new uses.

“I like that we are using disposable masks for their superior ability to block respiratory aerosols and droplets compared to cloth masks,” says Decker. “I dislike their impact as a waste stream going directly to a landfill.”

Decker, who previously has used TerraCycle programs for recycling such items as batteries and pipette tips, says the College of Engineering is a pioneer in this mask recycling effort at UW-Madison—but he credits a tip from chemical and biological engineering graduate student Liz Appelt for alerting him to the company’s mask recycling program. “This is a great opportunity for the College of Engineering to divert its disposable masks out of the landfill and recycle them for further use,” he says.

Author: Renee Meiller