Metro Vancouver is not pushing any initiatives for recycling the thousands of masks that have gone into the garbage the last two years in the Lower Mainland. And the province’s recycling operator is also not handling them, even though a local manufacturer is pioneering mask-recycling strategies.
That’s not likely to change soon. A Vancouver city councillor and member of Metro Vancouver’s zero waste committee says that although he supports recycling, it isn’t a priority yet.
“This virus is evolving and the science is changing fairly rapidly, so we’re limited and we’re really just in a response mode. We certainly recognize it has an impact on the waste stream,” said Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry.
“I don’t know that we’ll see anything quite like [city-wide mask recycling] anytime soon.”
Instead, he says there is more of a focus on other sustainability goals at the moment, like reusable packaging and arriving at some sort of standardization around bio- and compostable plastics. Those goals have pushed COVID-related waste concerns further down the agenda.
But a local manufacturer is still hoping to scale up mask-recycling programs in the near future.
Burnaby-based equipment manufacturer Vitacore partnered with UBC and McMaster University to launch what was, at the time, Canada’s first single-use mask and respirator recycling program in 2021.
The program aimed to reduce the environmental impact of PPE, but the research has not yet been taken advantage of by local governments, despite large amounts of mask waste.
A report from Metro Vancouver showed that residents disposed of an estimated total of 528 million items of personal protective equipment in 2020 alone, with the 2021 numbers yet to be published.
Currently Recycle BC, which manages all residential recyclables for Metro Vancouver, advises people not to dispose of PPE and medical waste in recycling bins, offering no alternatives.
Following another year of the pandemic, new variants of concern, and new insistence on disposable masks and respirators, that number is set to increase, but currently there are no plans underway to address mask recycling in Vancouver, according to the city.
Meanwhile industrialized mask collection and recycling is being done at various scales in eastern Canada, starting small with private programs at universities, medical institutions, and businesses.
In B.C., Vitacore began by collecting masks from medical centres in downtown Vancouver. The masks were then sterilized and separated by materials, with the majority of the mask being melted down to polypropylene pellets that can be reused in construction materials.
The pilot project helped evaluate and establish the physical process that Vitacore has since scaled up to collecting from four hospitals across Canada, with a fifth in the works.
“Our hospital program right now is just in our pilot phase. So we’re looking to — ideally, long-term — operate our program in every hospital in British Columbia or every hospital across Canada,” said Tyler Lauinger, Vitacore’s recycling manager.
“That’s the end goal: have a national program that can divert a large portion of our PPE.”
According to Rakesh Sahu, a materials science engineer at McMaster University and leading expert in mask recycling research, logistics and economic incentives may be holding cities back from large-scale implementation.
“There is not much profit initially in this recycling stuff, unless you find a holistic approach of doing recycling in a way that you have a lot of materials that you can recycle and get a lot of products that you can sell at the end,” said Sahu.
Lauinger says the next step is communicating with the appropriate levels of government to develop plans for collection and to incentivize manufacturers to purchase more recycled materials and recycled plastics.
“If we’re able to collect a significant amount of masks from [Metro Vancouver], we can hopefully recycle them in this region — and then also sell them or use the pellets for them again, all in the local area, helping out the local community,” said Lauinger.
Fry expressed interest in working with Vitacore and potentially launching a city-wide mask-recycling pilot project.
“I certainly didn’t realize Vitacore existed. So, perhaps there is an opportunity for us to pilot some kind of city pickup opportunities.”