In Italy alone, almost one billion masks are being used per month. An impressive number, calculated a few days ago by the Polytechnic of Turin and relating to the national needs estimated for phase 2, that is when – perhaps at the beginning of May – Italy will return to reopen most of its activities, offices and shops.

We are talking about a mountain of personal protective equipment, potentially useful for keeping the virus at bay in future months of coexistence, but which pose a disposal problem, with the need to minimise risks to the environment and public health. But considering how many we will have to use, would it be possible to recycle the masks?

To answer, let’s start with the types of masks. Basically the main types are surgical and Ffp 2 and 3, with or without valve. Those without valves are more respectful of those around you and recommended for the vast majority of people. Basic for anyone who is not a healthcare professional. Different models, but united by a common factor: they are composite objects, made of multiple materials, by definition the most difficult to recycle.

Recycle the masks

“Recycling the masks at this stage is absolutely out of the question – explains Mario Grosso, associate professor in management and treatment of solid waste at the Politecnico di Milano – Beyond the technical difficulties we would face, we must consider the risk associated with the handling and manipulation of potentially infected devices. Without forgetting that a part of the components of the masks is made of plastic polymers: materials on which Covid-19 is able to withstand longer”.

So what would be the best management of this particular waste? “The management chain must be as short as possible. The masks must be thrown into the undifferentiated and tightly closed bags. Then bring to the dumpster. From there they are collected with garbage trucks and unloaded directly into the pit of the nearest waste-to-energy plant, continues Grosso. This minimises the risks for operators and public health. “In Lombardy, for example, this short chain can be implemented immediately”, continues the expert: “There are other areas of Italy that will find themselves in difficulty because they lack infrastructure, that is, they do not have enough incinerators on their territory. Many manage the undifferentiated with simple pre-treatment plants that simply manipulate the waste, dividing it into numerous streams that require subsequent treatment. So for the most deficient Regions the only solution will be to make waste travel to incinerate in other territories, in Italy or abroad. With all the costs and risks that follow.”

Not only. It will also take solidarity between the Regions so that the best equipped ones make their facilities available to the most deficient ones.

Image: Rex

The environmental problem

The masks used are a risk to public health , but also to the environment. As Mariateresa Imparato, president of Legambiente Campania already denounced a few days ago: “We have received the first reports of abandonment on the street and in the vicinity of some supermarkets of disposable surgical gloves and masks. In anticipation of a phase 2 with the reopening of small and medium-sized companies, some offices call for civic sense and responsibility of citizens, but above all it is important to start an information and awareness campaign following the indications of the Higher Institute of Health where it is specified how to dispose of the anti-infection devices such as masks and gloves. Sanitary devices are very resistant and could last for decades in the environment , as is the case for thicker plastic bags or more resistant bottles of liquids”.

An idea of ​​reuse

But there are also those who are thinking these days not to recycle, but to safely reuse the masks. The idea was launched,  says Ansa, from the Pavia De Lama company, specialised in machines for sanitary sterilisation. The company has started experimenting with a prototype inside the Policlinico San Martino in Genoa. This machine would be able to sterilise thousands of masks every hour, thus guaranteeing the continuous availability of a fundamental protection device for doctors and nurses. Not to mention even substantial savings for healthcare facilities. The idea is there, we will have to see in the coming weeks if it works and if it is really able to guarantee the best possible sterilisation, use after use.

Differentiated yes or no?

In conclusion, the recommendations of both the Ministry of Health and the consortia specialised in the recycling of materials (such as Corepla) are to continue to do the separate collection , even in this period of emergency and even more so during phase 2. But only if all the family members are virus negative.

In case of suspicious symptoms or ascertained positivity, it is necessary to stop the separate collection and throw all the waste in the undifferentiated one, using several bags one inside the other, for greater safety. But the masks are never recycled.