Discarded face masks often do not make it to the trash and end up on the street or in green areas. COVID-19 has had environmental effects, mostly due to the increased pandemic-related plastic waste. Joana Correia Prata from Portugal’s University of Aveiro studies the issue: "Our research group has estimated that in 1 year, the use of disposable masks by the public, excluding health-care settings, generates 3.5 million metric tons of additional plastic waste.”
The plastic waste also ends up in our oceans, causing harm to marine life. A study by the Arizona State University in the PNAS Journal uses a model to quantify the impact and estimates that “8.4 ± 1.4 million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste have been generated from 193 countries as of August 23, 2021, with 25.9 ± 3.8 thousand tons released into the global ocean."
To get this problem under control, the healthcare sector, too, must find ways to reduce waste brought on by disposable products such as face masks and gloves. In this setting, we should first consider safe disposal methods, though these can only be implemented outside the medical realm if the respective products can be collected in an efficient manner in the public area. Solutions might include central collection points like those for household batteries and electronic devices.
This also ties in with proper recycling processes. Medical waste is typically incinerated to avoid potential health hazards. Unfortunately, this also destroys any raw materials in the items that could be reused. The Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT has developed an innovative recycling process for used masks that also neutralizes hazardous material: "We used pyrolysis to convert the masks to oil. That means we thermochemically converted the masks at around 650 degrees Celsius in the absence of oxygen. This process produces -among other things - pyrolysis oil,” explains Dr. Alexander Hofmann in a MEDICA-tradefair.com interview. The recovered pyrolysis oil can subsequently be used as raw material to make new plastics.