Masks have been a powerful tool in the fight against the pandemic, but they’re also creating enormous waste. Every minute, three million masks are used around the world—or 129 billion each month—the majority of which are single-use products made from plastic microfibers.
Since plastic masks can’t be recycled, they’ll end up clogging landfills where they won’t biodegrade but will break down into smaller and smaller plastic fragments that will end up in our waterways, harming both animals and humans. But what if we used old masks to create useful new products? That’s the idea motivating the Italian artist and designer Tobia Zambotti, whose latest project is a puffer jacketed filled with plastic face masks as insulation.
Zambotti realized that most of the disposable masks on the market are made from polypropylene, a plastic with thermo-regulating properties that is often used in polyfill, a common stuffing in down jackets. Zambotti, who is based in Iceland, collected 1,500 light blue masks that littered the streets of Reykjavík and disinfected them. “Even though COVID-19 particles can only survive on masks for around seven days, I stored them in a sealed plastic bag for a month in a bid to ensure that there were no traces left behind,” Zambotti writes in an email. “They were also disinfected with ozone spray.”
Zambotti then collaborated with Aleksi Saastamoinen, a fashion design student at Finland’s Aalto University, who transformed the recycled masks into stuffing for a jacket. They deliberately made the jacket’s outer later from an opaque, waterproof laminate material, so that the masks inside are visible. They’re calling the final garment Coat-19.
Zambotti’s coat is conceptual, designed to highlight what he refers to as an “absurd pandemic-related environmental issue.” He’s among several designers thinking about possible uses for this waste. Korean designer Haneul Kim, for instance, melted down thousands of plastic masks, then dyed the melted plastic and used it to create furniture. But if we are to tackle the waste related to the billions of disposable masks and gloves being thrown out in the face of the health crisis, we need larger scale ideas.
One promising solution has emerged in France. A company called Plaxtil has developed a way to take plastic fabrics, grind them down, mix them with a binding substance and transform them into a material—which they call Plaxtil—that can then be moulded into plastic for other products, like face shields. Before the pandemic, it specialized in recycling garments, but in July 2020, it began exclusively focusing on recycling plastic face masks. It churns through about 50,000 masks a month, transforming them into more than 2,000 plastic products.