How one company is solving a rubbish problem by finding new uses for the billions of face masks we’re using to beat COVID-19.
Slipping a face mask into your school bag is becoming normal for lots of children. How about you? Do you sometimes have to wear one?
You might have one made of cotton that gets washed. But billions of people are using masks made of a kind of plastic cloth that they have to throw away after a few hours. Imagine how many end up in our bins!
Masks are rubbish…
Wearing a mask is a really good way to stop the COVID-19 virus from spreading.
Children don’t usually get very sick with it. That’s why you might not need to wear one. But for grown-ups, it stops them sneezing or coughing the virus onto others – or breathing in what other people cough out.
The problem is one person might have to throw away two, three or even more masks a day, if they are out a lot. That’s a lot of rubbish.
Much of it is burned – which adds to greenhouse gas-making global warming – and a lot of this plastic waste can end up just messing up our streets, the countryside or even the oceans.
…but can make something useful
The good news is that people are finding ways to turn those old masks into something we can use again.
Olivier and Jean-Marc run a company in France that recycles plastic and they had the idea to save old masks from the bin and transform them into other handy items we need to fight COVID – such as hooks for opening doors without touching the handle with your hands, or gadgets for holding new masks onto your face.
Around the town where they work, Châtellerault, Olivier and Jean-Marc have put out 50 big cardboard bins to collect used masks.
Their plan has worked pretty well. They collected 15,000 masks just in the first 10 days this summer.
So how do you turn this old rubbish in something?
Well, it’s pretty straightforward, but there are a few steps. First, of course, they have to make sure that they’re not collecting the virus along with the masks! They put the rubbish in quarantine for 4 days – no one touches it.
Then they shine bright ultra-violet light on the masks, to kill any germs that might hang around. After that, they mince up loads of masks to get tiny plastic pellets. Those little balls of plastic get melted together to make new, useful, objects.
What’s really neat about the project in Châtellerault is that they’re turning one thing for fighting COVID into other weapons against the virus.
That’s what we call the circular economy. Do you remember that from our story about plastic bottles?
Now, there’s not a lot of weight in a mask. So it can take dozens of them to make just one quite small plastic item. But that’s all the more masks that aren’t polluting our planet!
From dreaming of stars…
WoW! talks to magic mask recycler Jean-Marc Neveu
WoW! : Hi Jean-Marc ! What gave you this great idea to recycle our COVID face masks?
Jean-Marc : Thanks! Well, you know, it was important to Olivier [my co-founder] and me that all these masks don’t end up in the countryside or on the streets. We wanted to do something, in our own way, for planet.
WoW! : What can we all do in the future to reduce pollution?
Jean-Marc: When I was studying to become an engineer, I was taught how to design new products, but not how to take them apart afterwards. The real revolution today is the circular economy!
WoW!: You mean making things that can be easily recycled after they’ve been used, instead of throwing things away all the time?
Jean-Marc : Right from the very start, we should be designing things so that they’re easy to break down afterwards – and so that they go on working for longer. We call that eco-design.
People throw away millions of masks every day. They’re keeping us safe from COVID – but it’s no good for the planet.
Clean them and mince them up to get recycled plastic that can make other useful tools!