Disposable surgical masks are a prevalent problem worldwide due to the pandemic. The issue is that we need them to keep ourselves and each other safe, but there is no denying the massive quantity of litter that their constant use produces.
Tanya Cowling from Sterile Services at the Royal Cornwall Hospital explains how they turn the masks into useful devices that help reduce the problem of litter in general. “Obviously,” she says, “we need to remove the ear straps and the wire that sits over your nose. Then that all gets melted down and that makes one of the big blocks which then gets taken away and grounded down into plastic granules and repurposed.”
One litter picker requires 45 masks.
Sustainability lead at Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust Roz Davies says that “pre-Covid [they] were using about 300 masks a day… and then Covid struck and that increased to 10,000 a day, and [they] used to have massive piles of masks in the bin.”
Now, things are much better, and the project also gives the younger generation in Cornwall an opportunity to create sustainable habits and cultivate environmental awareness that will hopefully last throughout their lives.
One student says that picking litter with her mask-made litter-picker “made [her] feel happier because we were then saving more animals from getting stuff tangled in their insides.”
Eventually, the hospital hopes that they can eradicate the use of disposable masks entirely. “We all want to get to reusable [surgical masks],” says Davies. “That’s the end result, but the barriers are there for a very good reason and we must stick with them to keep our staff and patients safe… until then, at least [the litter-picker initiative] repurposes what we’ve got.”