The journey of the disposable masks

Learn about the journey that disposable masks go through after being thrown in one of the mask recycling bins at Concordia. Graphic Joey Bruce

Here’s the 6-step recycling process that disposable masks undergo when thrown away in Concordia’s designated recycling bins

When a used mask is thrown away, where does it end up? 

If the mask was thrown in one of the several designated mask recycling bins on Concordia’s campus, this article has the answer. Concordia has installed mask dispensaries at each access point of the Sir George Williams and Loyola buildings. Next to the dispensaries, there are recycling bins specifically dedicated for mask recycling, but some students wonder where their masks end up.

Step 1: The mask is thrown away

The journey of a mask begins when it is disposed of. Upon entering a building, students are asked to change masks that do not conform with the university’s health safety guidelines. According to Concordia’s protocols, cloth face coverings are not permitted. Students can only wear ASTM F2100 masks (i.e., filtered surgical masks), disposable respirators, such as N95s and K95s, or anything equivalent—though that is not always the case. 

Christopher Vacarella, member of the Sustainability Action Fund, a fee levy group that uses its funds to support sustainability-related projects, believes this rule is too rigid and unsustainable. “I can’t wear this mask, but it is the same as the blue mask,” he says, pointing to a black surgical mask. “It has the same filter system. This is just causing more waste.” It is unclear why such face coverings are prohibited on campus. Concordia’s online mask requirements do not mention the colour of the mask playing a role in its inefficiency. 

Arrien Weeks, material and tool literacy coordinator at the Concordia University Centre for Creative Reuse, recognizes that procedural masks produce a lot of waste but there is little the university could do. “As an institution, our hands are unfortunately tied by government mandates,” he says.

Zero Waste Concordia, a sustainability initiative aiming to reduce waste on campus, is working alongside the CUCCR and the facilities management department to divert most masks to recycling plants.

After the mask mandate was announced, on Feb. 2021, Zero Waste Concordia set up mask recycling bins. “We had a mask dispenser, hand sanitizer, and a mask recycling station altogether, [...] in an effort to curb the number of masks that will end up in a regular bin,” says Weeks. 

If a mask is thrown in one of the designated bins, it has a much more interesting trajectory than a mask thrown in a regular bin. Masks thrown in a garbage can or an improper recycling bin simply end up in landfills.

“I can’t wear [a black disposable] mask, but it is the same as the blue [disposable] mask.” — Christopher Vacarella

Step 2: MultiRecycle Sorts the Waste

Zero Waste Concordia works alongside MultiRecycle, an intermediate company that sorts the recyclable waste of public and private institutions in Montreal. Materials are accumulated and assorted into different categories, explains Annick Leblanc, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

MultiRecycle then evaluates the waste to determine where to send it. “We just sort what we see through the bags, and we place it in different bins,” she says. 

Leblanc explains the material is sent to a treatment centre to undergo optical sorting, a process that uses lasers to separate recyclable waste from contaminants. Contaminants can include full coffee cups, food scraps, or paper. “We can have a maximum of 15 per cent contamination,” she explains. If the contamination percentage is higher, the recycling process will not work, Leblanc says.


Step 3: Masks are Sent to a Recycling Plant 

Where are these sorted masks sent? “It is a complex system,” says Weeks. “MultiRecycle partners with multiple companies.” 

However, it is not guaranteed that masks will be recycled locally. Leblanc says the quality of waste plays a major role in where it ends up. If the material is not contaminated, it will be sent to Les Plastiques Évolupak Inc., a plastics manufacturing company located in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, she explains.

Contaminated masks are shipped to Covanta, a waste management company that converts recyclable materials to green energy, to be incinerated, she says. According to their website, non-hazardous waste is burnt and its ashes are collected to create metal. While this company has many locations around the world, the waste from MultiRecycle is sent to their branch in Niagara Falls, New York. Leblanc says the company tries its best to keep its waste local, but heavily contaminated waste must be sent elsewhere. “We don’t have the resources in Quebec,” she explains. 


Step 4: Masks are Sanitized

Upon arrival at their appropriate recycling firm, all the waste is cleaned—a step particularly important when it comes to masks. This process varies between companies. Go Zero Recycle, a Magog recycling plant, quarantines its masks for a seven-day period and later passes them under a UV light to remove all remaining bacteria, for example. 


Step 5: Masks are Dismantled 

Once they are disinfected, the masks are disassembled into three parts: the filter, the nose clip, and the strings. “The nose clip is 100 per cent aluminum, and it is forever recyclable,” says Weeks. 

Leblanc says Évoluplak will then shred the filters into two-inch pieces to be granulated. “After that, the materials will be sold to two different companies, here in Quebec,” she says. 

The strings of the masks are the only part that cannot be recycled, and are thrown away.


Step 6: Masks are Transformed into Goods

Masks can be converted into a number of things. Leblanc says Évoluplak combines 10 per cent of the granulated mask filters into their recipe to make plastic bins.

Weeks also adds that some companies will transform the mask into medical equipment. “It is definitely closing the loop, which is a great thing to see,” he says.

“Over the Fall semester, we went through over 1.5 tonnes of masks, [...]” — Arrien Weeks

Results, Reactions, and Responses

This specific mask trajectory is dependent on whether all the variables come together smoothly. It is thus important to examine the results and responses from students and sustainability experts.

“Over the Fall semester, we went through over 1.5 tonnes of masks, so that’s pretty significant,” says Weeks proudly. Zero Waste Concordia is always improving. “I have seen, as the time went on, that contamination has gone down significantly,” he says. Students are becoming more cognizant of where to throw their waste. While they are working towards this, there are currently no statistics on how many masks are recycled on a monthly basis.

Psychology student Kaylie Papa says she has not been recycling her masks on campus because she was unaware this was an option. Akash Kanagalingam, a student in supply chain operations management, has also not yet had an opportunity to use the recycling bins because he brings a proper surgical mask from home.

Yet, the responses were not entirely negative. Actuarial mathematics student, Andrea Tullo, is one student who always recycles her used masks on campus. Other students have been throwing their masks away in the proper bins, unaware that the material inside was even being recycled.  

Post-doctorate engineering student, Keroles Riad, is skeptical of the success and motivations behind this initiative. As the founder of Waste Not, Want Not, an organization that promotes composting on campus, he knows first-hand the challenges of trying to make the university more sustainable. 

“The institution at Concordia does not have a great track record for sustainability and does not have a lot of credibility,” Riad says. Though he recognizes that there are many individuals and organizations within the institution that are doing great work, he wonders whether the university’s commitment to recycling masks is not simply greenwashing.

 There are many possible ways to ensure that mask waste is reduced. For Weeks, the solution is simple. “At the end of the day, it’s about education,” he says. Students and staff must learn how to live more sustainably.

“The institution at Concordia does not have a great track record for sustainability and does not have a lot of credibility.” — Keroles Riad

According to Riad, the solution is dependent on which group is being targeted. When it comes down to community issues, students care, and change does not need to take time, he says. “In my experience, people don’t want lectures, they want help.” He believes that institutional change is more complex. “We need a champion that protects us from the system. It is a large and dormant institution that does not want to change.”

One company is rising to that challenge. FPInnovations, a research center specializing in forestry and bio-sourced products, developed the world’s first biodegradable mask. “It started with my staff asking themselves how can they help,” says President and CEO Stéphane Renou. Shortly after, the first mask was developed. “The mask passed international standard testing,” he says proudly. It has the same specifications as a surgical mask used in hospitals. 

However, this product is not yet on the market. “The first consumer must be institutions and governments,” he says. Renou also explains that larger recycling companies have no incentive to produce sustainable goods because they are not as profitable.  FPInnovations is now working towards breaking through all these barriers. 

This is the journey of a disposable mask that is thrown in a recycling bin at Concordia. It is certainly complicated, and students believe it could be optimized.

Learn about the journey that disposable masks go through after being thrown in one of the mask recycling bins at Concordia. Graphic Joey Bruce