Loyola has partnered with a waste-management company to provide a way for students and staff to recycle used disposable masks.
The Cycle and Recycle program gives the Loyola community the opportunity to recycle its used masks rather than throwing them in the garbage. Students can drop off their non-woven disposable plastic-based masks, 3-ply surgical masks, KN95’s or N95 masks at the drop-off location found inside of the Main Parking Structure on the Lake Shore Campus next to Chainlinks.
To accomplish this, Loyola partnered with TerraCycle, a waste management company that reduces waste in landfills by reusing and upcycling materials that would typically be found in landfills.
TerraCycle recycles waste in their Zero Waste Boxes. After collection, the waste is separated based on aspects of material composition such as air density, size, gravity, and magneticness, said the TerraCycle website. Then, separated materials are sent to third party companies that upcycle the materials into usable goods.
TerraCycle didn’t respond to a request for comment.
After nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hannah Yun, a sophomore molecular and cellular neuroscience major, grew worried about the environmental effects of disposable masks and proposed the idea to recycle masks to Loyola’s Department of Sustainability.
“There are certain concerns the pandemic has induced, including a huge contribution to the growing landfill crises across the world, and accumulation of plastic pollution in our water streams and oceans as the result of improper disposal of reusable face masks,” she said.
Yun shared how she was inspired by a single-use mask recycling program at the University of Illinois that began recycling single-use masks in Dec. 2020. The University of Illinois’ mask TerraCycling program has fifty collection box locations on the Urbana-Champaign Campus.
“I think it’s really important to consider the ramifications the COVID pandemic is going to have on our future as a society,” Yun, 19, told The Phoenix.
Megan Conway, sustainability coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, said the program is necessary because some of the biggest issues with recycling are a lack of diversion and contamination, which means “Recycled materials are ending up in the landfills and where non recyclable materials are ending up in the recycling and devaluing the material.”
Some students, such as biology major Angelica Tuppar, agree a waste-management program for disposable masks is necessary for Loyola’s LSC.
“I see a lot of masks just on the street so I’m glad to know Loyola is working on this issue,” Tuppar, 19, said.
Conway explained the components of disposable masks can be separated and reused for various purposes.
“The metal in the nose bridges are melted and remanufactured,” she told the Phoenix. “The other plastics can be granulated and used for other plastic production.”
Disposable masks consist of polypropylene, a single-use plastic, Yun said.
Yun said when polypropylene masks are put into landfills, the microplastics end up in drinking water as they degrade. Upcycling face masks reduces landfill waste and eliminates contamination from polypropylene.
One study from Orb Media showed how water samples from across the world are contaminated. In an experiment that tested 159 water samples for toxins, eighty-three percent of the samples tested positive for synthetic fibers.
Jenna Anderson, a first-year environmental engineering student, said she uses disposable masks in accordance with Loyola’s Health, Safety and Well-Being updates and changes her mask each day, but expressed concerns about increasing waste in landfills.
“For myself, I throw seven masks out a week, which is a lot for one person, but I am glad there is another option,” Anderson, 18, told The Phoenix.
Conway said Loyola’s Office of Sustainability will be tracking the success rate of the program and then will make a decision as to whether the program needs to be taken over by a larger department on campus such as Residence Life or the Wellness Center.