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April 22, 2021 - 2:57pm

RRH's expert on sustainability has advice for us on Earth Day about mask-wearing

posted by Howard B. Owens in Rochester Regional Health, covid-19, coronavirus, news, notify, masks.

It's Earth Day 2021, the first one we've commemorated while under a mask mandate because of the coronavirus pandemic, so maybe we should talk about what mass mask wearing means for the environment?

A lot, it turns out, according to Mike Waller, Rochester Regional Health’s director of Sustainability, who spoke with reporters this morning about keeping masks away from animals and using masks that do less to deplete natural resources, such as reusable masks.

"I have three kids, and I want to say we probably have like a hundred different reusable masks at this point," Waller said. "They are really not that expensive any longer. But if you are using a disposable mask, there are ones made with more environmentally friendly materials made such as hemp and other natural fibers. If you do dispose of them, there really is no good way to recycle them because they are made from multiple materials. And so disposing of them in the regular trash, as you would any other items, is the best way to go."

It's not feasible financially for recycling companies to break down masks into their component parts so they can be processed into materials to make new products. But if disposables aren't disposed of properly, they're not only an eyesore on our city streets, they become a problem for wildlife. Potentially, a deadly one.

"A lot of turtles like them when they end up in the waterways," Waller said. "I read that mold and algae grow really easily on these masks. When that happens, it just looks like there's a green floating piece of algae. Fish and turtles think it's food and then they'll swallow the whole mask."

"Make sure they go in the trash," he said. "That's definitely the number one thing to do."

Reusable masks can, of course, be used dozens of times (washed between uses) and maybe hundreds of times before they need to go to a landfill. That will cut down on swallowing up the earth's resources to make masks.

While Waller isn't an epidemiologist and can't predict the course of the pandemic, he expects, as a personal opinion, that mask wearing will be with us for a good long time yet.

"I always thought it would take quite a few years," Waller said. "I think of my three kids in school and some of the folks in the school the district, they share, they predict we'll have masks through next year as well in the school. I think that that would probably make sense as well. I hope like everybody else, it's no longer than that.

"But, you know, I notice with my kids, I think it's very interesting, they don't -- my youngest is 3 -- and they don't really care about wearing masks at all. It's really not a big deal to them. And they do a great job of keeping them on. It's usually the adults that have all the issues."

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