Over 42,000 disposable masks have been handed out since the University of Arizona's recreation center mask mandate on Sept. 6, according to Troy Vaughn, the director of Campus Recreation.
This total is shared between both the North and South Rec Centers and averages out at about 900 disposable masks per day. Disposable masks handed out in other places on campus such as classrooms and the library are not included in this total.
“We were approved through facilities management to start handing out masks to people coming through the rec, out of convenience for them,” Vaughn stated. “We have felt very positive about the fact that the rec is the only unit on campus (aside from classrooms) that has a mask mandate.”
According to Trevor Ledbetter, the head of Sustainability at the UA, disposable masks are not currently being recycled on campus and are not an easily recyclable product.
“Disposable masks fall into the category of a ‘hard to recycle’ material,” Ledbetter said. “So, unless a single strain is created to divert them from otherwise being landfilled, you can't recycle them in traditional recycling bins because they have to be separate from other waste.”
Troy Vaughn knew that the excess of masks would create some waste issues, so he reached out to a company called Terracycle, which collects disposable masks and recycles them into other products.
“We're very self aware here at the rec center about the waste that we produce, and Terracycle is the only company that we are aware of that does this,” Vaughn said. “Terracycle will send us boxes where we will put the used masks. Then, we will send the filled boxes back to the company, where they will be recycled into different products, like park benches, for example.”
This relationship with Terracycle would likely be paid for at the expense of the rec center. Troy Vaughn and Campus Recreation are currently working closely with ASUA and waiting on word from Terracycle for when and how they can get started.
One solution to the waste issue regarding disposable masks would be to swap them for a reusable one.
“We're far enough into the pandemic that on campus, we should know where it's expected to be wearing a mask,” Ledbetter said. “So, students shouldn't have a problem carrying around a reusable one to these designated areas, and it shouldn't be a surprise where masks are and are not needed.”
Both the Office of Sustainability as well as the Rec Center are working collectively to raise awareness about mask usage and how to keep campus as environmentally friendly as possible.
“The goal for the sustainability department regarding waste is to reduce waste as much as we can,” Ledbetter said. “We're engaging with an organization called the Post Landfill Action Network (PLAN) and they have an atlas program that provides support for students on campus to work with and understand the waste management process, and ultimately move forward to our goal of having zero waste on campus.”
With PLAN and Terracycle in the works of educating students about waste management, Ledbetter and Vaughn are hopeful that the number of disposable masks used will be decreasing in the near future.
“Handing out disposable masks is a double-edged sword,” Vaughn said. “Our [COVID-19] cases have gone down since the mandate, but we also know that the handing out of these disposable masks raises some environmental concerns. Masking on campus is paramount and we are working to figure out a way to handle the waste issue.”
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