RED River College has established a new front in its campus fight against mask litter.
Three recycling boxes specifically for disposable face masks have been placed outdoors around the Winnipeg school’s Notre Dame site, the first program of its kind at a Manitoba post-secondary institution.
"We saw a need — there are masks everywhere," Sarah MacArthur, director of campus planning and sustainability, said Tuesday.
A recycling box is sealed when full, and remains sealed for 72 hours, after which it is sent to New Jersey-based facility TerraCycle, which sells the "zero waste" boxes with return packaging to non-health-care organizations looking to recycle PPE.
After TerraCycle receives sealed boxes, the masks are quarantined for another 72 hours to limit the possibility of lingering contaminants, then sent to third-party processors, which disassemble the masks into new products including shipping pallets.
Local organizers have already reached out to RRC, asking how to install similar programs at their own spaces, MacArthur said.
"I do hope that part of this is just raising awareness, that there is a company out there that can recycle masks, and here is what those mask parts are made into."
Disposable mask and glove waste has been a source of concern throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Single-use masks are not recyclable through the City of Winnipeg, and in October, local beautification non-profit Take Pride Winnipeg said it had seen a dramatic increase in this type of litter, encouraging the public to be mindful of volunteer litter-pickers who have to carefully remove possibly contaminated masks and gloves.
According to Michael Gordichuk, Winnipeg manager of solid waste services, residential garbage rose 12 per cent in the past year, jumping to 194,570 tonnes in 2020, from 174,050 tonnes in 2019.
However, there was less than a one per cent rise in the total amount of recycling.
This spike in trash was attributed to the pandemic keeping people home cleaning, ordering food in takeout containers, and engaging in other activities that typically result in extra procured garbage.
"This is a small thing we can do to curb the amount of waste that is filling our landfills right now," MacArthur said.
Red River will be "keeping an open mind" to enhancing its COVID-19 waste recycling program.
"One day, reusable masks, or the mask requirement, is going to end, we all hope," she said. "But (TerraCycle) also recycles other forms of PPE, and these are products we use on campus in many of our training programs or other programs.
"So it could be a really natural fit for us to transition from a disposable mask recycling program to safety glasses, hearing protection and lab coat (recycling), and other things we generate on campus."
RRC distributes more than 6,000 disposable masks to people on campus every month.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.