Mindful Mask Management

K R
5 min readJun 15, 2021

If there’s one thing that most of us haven’t been able to live without on a daily basis, it would be face masks. Do you know exactly how many masks you’ve used since the Covid-19 pandemic? If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably lost count and not thought much of it until now… But, here is a number that might stick — 129 billion. That’s approximately how many disposable masks are being used every month, which equals to 3 million masks per minute according to the National Geographic.

Why should we be concerned about this number? Well first, disposable face masks are made up of plastic or polypropylene to be more specific. And this material takes decades if not centuries to decompose. So, the 129 billion non-biodegradable masks we’re using every month won’t magically disappear anytime soon, they are staying with us in our environment and many of them are already flooding our oceans. This is on top of the ocean pollution issue that existed prior to Covid-19. It’s a big problem for both life on land (human life included) and life below water.

© Andriy Nekrasov

“Masks are an ecological time bomb, “ writes Éric Pauget, a French politician, to Emmanuel Macron.

Despite the recent global effort towards reducing plastic waste, masks are becoming the world’s next plastic problem and the marine environment is where we’re seeing immediate harm. With these levels of mask pollution, we could be seeing more masks than jellyfish in the sea in the near future. But, that’s not the only problem, the toxic micro-plastics from masks are entering ­­our ecosystem via animal ingestion and will inevitability affect human health as it makes its way up the food chain.

What is meant to protect life is ironically posing a major a threat to destroy it.

How else are face masks harming life? Most visibly, animals are being entangled by the elastic ear loops and often don’t survive.

© Sandra Denisuk

So now we know that masks are a big problem. But, what can we do? We still need them everyday. This is the question we need to ask ourselves at a global level, at a national level, and most importantly, at a local level because this is where each of us can have an impact.

The Challenge

I am proposing a challenge to find the answer to this question — What is a sustainable solution for mindfully managing masks?

This challenge calls the most creative minds in France — students from primary to high school - to propose a solution by following a Maker Education approach. Students are asked to form smaller groups and work under the guidance of the classroom teacher.

The Method

1.Research the topic (news, photos, videos, statistics, observations, etc.).

2.Brainstorm ideas for feasible solutions.

3. Decide on one solution to create and make a hypothesis.

4.Sketch and design a 3D digital model of the solution product or a part of the solution that can be physically created.

(i.e. If the solution is a website, participants must create a physical product that supplements the initiative behind the website such as a poster ad or a tool needed to follow the instructions outlined on the website.)

5.Build a prototype of this model.

6.Strategize and draw a roadmap of how this solution will help the problem.

7.Present the proposal to the school community with both the benefits and the constraints.

8. Implement one solution chosen by the school community.

Participants will need to consider the following questions:

1.What can we do as a community to help reduce/prevent the environmental problems caused by disposable masks?

2.How can we make disposable masks reusable, recyclable/upcyclable, renewable or replaceable (without compromising the sanitary guidelines)? What tools or services will be necessary to achieve this?

3.How are some of the other countries dealing with this environmental problem? What is a good initiative we can adopt or replicate?

Here’s a great example of a mask recycling solution created by a French start-up:

Another great initiative in South Korea:

Click here for more examples of mask management.

The Objectives

  • Promote sustainability goals for life on land and life below water.
  • Create awareness about the environmental threats caused by disposable masks.
  • Encourage educational communities to participate in actionable solutions to the environmental problems.
  • Promote creativity and collaborative skills through teamwork and problem solving.
  • Encourage development of design and prototyping skills through Maker Education.

The Expected Results

  • Alternative solutions for managing mask waste as a society
  • More effective management of mask waste in the community
  • Reduction of plastic waste globally
  • Higher conversion of mask waste to valuable materials
  • Masks posing less threat to wildlife
  • Community building
  • Learn creative and sustainable approaches for solving real-world threats

Now, it is up to you to take on the creative challenge to mindfully manage masks! I will now leave you with this final quote:

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

— Jane Goodall

References

Dharmaraj, S. et al. (2021, June 1). The COVID-19 pandemic face mask waste: A blooming threat to the marine environment. ScienceDirect. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2021.129601

France 24 English. Face mask recycling: French firm finds way to re-use Covid waste [FRANCE 24 English] Youtube. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1fAh1gE57w

Kassam, A. (2020, July 1). “More masks than jellyfish”: coronavirus waste ends up in ocean. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/08/more-masks-than-jellyfish-coronavirus-waste-ends-up-in-ocean

Korea Now. The face-mask seat: “No-one recycled face mask, so I did” [KOREA NOW] Youtube. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1fAh1gE57w

Parker, L. (2021, May 4). How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/how-to-stop-discarded-face-masks-from-polluting-the-planet

Perillo, D. (2021, May 3). The circularity of disposable masks. Eni. https://www.eni.com/en-IT/circular-economy/recycling-covid-masks.html

Selvaranjan, K. et al. (2021). Environmental challenges induced by extensive use of face masks during COVID-19: A review and potential solutions. Environmental Challenges, 3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envc.2021.100039

University of Southern Denmark. (2021, March 10). Face masks and the environment: Preventing the next plastic problem. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 15, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210310122431.htm

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