Face masks and our Planet: a new challenge for the environment

The burden on nature has already increased. COVID-19 Pandemic leads to even more pollution of the world’s oceans. Used face masks pollute the environment and pose a serious health risk to wildlife, especially marine organisms. Most masks are made from durable plastic materials, and they can remain in the environment from a few decades up to hundreds of years. Even an uninfected mask is a source of microplastic, which subsequently enters the human body due to improper disposal. Weather conditions will begin to decompose it and plastic molecules will get into the environmental cycle. In this article, we will try to address the issue by showing one of the best already-existing practices, such as the French start-up Plaxtil. Moreover, we will try to understand possible solutions to increase pro-environmental behaviors based on academic papers on behavioral psychology. In conclusion, a suggestion to public authorities will be made to reinforce public actions and regulatory nudges to address the issue. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, masks were primarily used in hospitals and clinics. They were disposed of alongside several other medical wastes. One can only imagine the amount of face masks that are in use today, it is, therefore, necessary to give a look at medical mask sales data. According to the consulting firm Grand View Research, if the global market for disposable protective masks in 2019 was estimated at $800 million, this year it increased up to $166 billion considering that nowadays, a person must change the mask every 2-3 hours.

However, masks cannot be introduced in the standard plastic recycling process, since they are classified as medical waste and their hazard threat is higher. Otherwise, they inevitably harm the environment. It should be noted that even this kind of waste can be recycled and processed into raw materials for new products. Countries all over the world are currently attempting to research the best way to recycle masks. Nevertheless, from a logistical point of view, this is not easy because the virus can remain on the surface of plastic for several days.

In addition, each mask is made up of three different materials, two of which are metal and rubber. This fact also complicates the recycling process. New initiatives and firms are coming up with ideas and technologies that are able to disinfect personal protection masks and safely process them, like Plaxtil. On the field of innovation and sustainability, Plaxtil is a French start-up that created an initiative to recycle thousands of face masks.

The process is structured as follows: first, the masks are collected and stored to stop the ineffectiveness; after 4 days, they are crushed and disinfected using ultraviolet light; then, masks are mixed with a specific substance and then processed into new Plaxtil material, from which it is possible to make a variety of plastic goods, like protective plastic visors, visors holders or storage boxes.  At this stage, the company is focused on producing plastic visors to protect people against COVID-19. Since the end of June, the company has processed over 50,000 masks into 3,000 new products. 

However, an issue remains: people are not recycling their masks, and even worse, they are throwing them on the ground. This is a serious problem, given the amount of protective devices in our world. This is a consequence of the lack of information and infrastructure to recycle face masks, and maybe even the absence of legislation to enforce recycling. 

A single-use face mask made of layers of plastic on the floor

An area where we have seen an excess of improperly disposed face masks is that of public transportation. Face masks are littered throughout these locations. Public transportation is an area of high congestion where many feel the necessity to switch their current face mask to a brand new sanitized in order to feel protected. One solution to tackle the issue is to increase the amount of specialized trash bins for masks in all public places, in the hope that this would create greater ease of access. In fact, studies have shown reinforcement of positive emotion as a major factor in people’s incentive to recycle, and we believe public authorities should necessarily foster this positive emotion through incentives. Cumulated with the spread of effective mask bins, this will raise consumer’s participation.

To strengthen the recycling process, one could tackle human behaviors through “perceptual affordances”. This concept refers to a particular objects’ designs that show users which action should be performed. Rutgers University made an experiment in which thirty bins were positioned in various buildings inside the campus, analyzed whether perceptual affordances do influence recycling behaviors. The results showed that the use of specialized container lids increased the recycling compliance rate by 34% and reduced the number of contaminants entering the recycling stream by 95%.

But delivering specialized bins can be considered too expensive by public authorities. Thus, some kind of incentive to make pro-environmental actions is needed. Another study (Schneider et al. 2017), highlights the influence of anticipated pride and guilt on pro-environmental decision-making. It compares the two emotions and their influence on reinforcing pro-environmental actions and behavioral intentions: “Notably, inducing people to anticipate feelings of pride for positive future actions appears to have a more powerful effect on pro-environmental motivation compared to prompting feelings of guilt for inactions”.

The results of this study to nudge people indicate anticipated pride in recognition for one’s actions yields greater results than attempting to use guilt tactics. Reinforcing green behavior with positive communication and messaging strategies will give the actor greater satisfaction and a higher rate of permanent behavioral change. Applying this logic to the issue of face masks, implementing positive communication strategies, will stimulate people in recycling face masks to receive their desired satisfaction and recognition. Thereby, it is necessary to display positive messages on the bins and on billboards to increase the level of concern and volunteer participation among people in constructing a greener world.

Instilling a more in-depth understanding of such effects in policymakers, advocacy organizations, etc, will benefit pro-environmental decision making. Positive reinforcement has proven to increase future positive behavior amongst those who engage in it. With the knowledge of the precedent results, implementing similar tactics presented in an innovative manner will increase desired recycling behavior among the population. For example, in Rome, the starting point can be the experimentation of integrating special bins for face masks in the public transport network and the deployment of a more pervasive environmental advertisement. In this way, we could observe if perceptual affordances and anticipated emotions have a positive effect on recycling individual protection devices. Implementation of the proposals put forth, and active community engagement is needed to confront the issue we are currently facing. It would drastically reduce it, in the hope that one day it will be eliminated.

This article has been written by the students of the Luiss new Msc in Law, Digital Innovation and Sustainability in the context of the class of Law and Policy of Innovation and Sustainability taught by Professor Christian Iaione. The cluster “Life and Human Kind” is composed of the following students: Chiara Blasetti, Anthony Galvano, Sophie Bols, Betul Puskullu, Anastasia Kuzina and Carlo Venturi.

Sources:
WHO, 2019, Corona Virus (COVID-19) advise for the public, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-
coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public

UNCTAD, 2020, ‘Growing plastic pollution in wake of COVID-19: how trade policy can help’,
https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help

Plaxtil Web Site, https://www.plaxtil.com/?lang=en
Duffy S., Verges M., 2009, ‘It Matters a Hole Lot: Perceptual Affordances of Waste Containers Influence Recycling Compliance’, Environmental Behaviour, Vol. 41, Issue 5,
https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0013916508323737
Schneider CR, Zaval L, Weber EU, Markowitz EM, (2017), ‘The influence of anticipated pride and guilt on pro-environmental decision making’, PLoS ONE 12(11) https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0188781
Schneider CR, Zaval L, Weber EU, Markowitz EM, (2017), ‘The influence of anticipated pride and guilt on pro-environmental decision making’, PLoS ONE 12(11) https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0188781