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Limited-time mask recycling boxes available on UNC's campus to reduce waste

Sophomore business administration major BJ Miles puts a surgical mask in one of the six teracycle boxes sponsored by the UNC Student Government, UNC Green Labs, and Sustainable Carolina. These boxes have been placed on campus for students to recycle surgical, KN95, and N95 masks.

Undergraduate Student Government, Sustainable Carolina and UNC Green Labs have launched a limited-time mask collection program to recycle disposable face masks on campus.

The collaborative effort seeks to reduce waste and pollution caused by the large amount of mask disposal.

“If you’re wasting like five masks a day, you have to take into account your carbon footprint,” junior Mary-Catherine Gray, Student Government sustainability coordinator, said. “Make sure you take into account what’s happening to that mask, because 129 billion disposable masks end up in the landfill each month.”

Each collection bin can hold up to 2,100 masks, and the bins are placed at six locations on campus: the Student Union, Student Recreation Center, Lenoir Dining Hall, the Genome Sciences Building, Kenan-Flagler Business School and outside Beach Cafe in Brinkhous-Bullitt.

Gray initially pitched the idea last year.

Senior Noah Upchurch, assistant director of environmental affairs for Student Government, said the idea was dropped at first, but it regained traction over the summer and came to fruition in November.

“(Gray said) the masks lying around on the ground, it's dirtying up our campus," Upchurch said. "It does not accurately reflect the beauty of what Carolina should be. And we know that we can throw them away, but there has to be another way that we can get rid of them as well."

The bins are regularly monitored by student and staff volunteers, and Upchurch is working with the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group to create a volunteer database that oversees the proper use of the mask recycling bins.

Cindy Shea, sustainability director for Sustainable Carolina, said in an email statement that full boxes are sent to TerraCycle, a company that collects non-recyclable waste to turn it into raw material to be used in new products. The masks are then pulverized, and the powder created from them is used to manufacture reusable shipping pallets, park benches, picnic tables, Adirondack chairs, railroad ties and other items.

Senior Sofie Foppiano used one of the mask recycling boxes for the first time at the Student Union.

“Normally, I just toss my mask in the trash. I didn’t actually know they could be recycled,” Foppiano said. "If we’re all required to use disposable (masks), I feel like there should be some environmentally friendly solution."

Upchurch and Gray said the boxes would be available for this semester, but the end date has not been confirmed. Currently, they are only able to provide one more refill for each of the six bins due to financial limitations. They are also monitoring the pandemic and said there might be a reevaluation on whether the recycling boxes are still needed in a few months.

However, it is possible for different departments, schools, clubs and other University initiatives to set aside funding to implement the system in their buildings.

"Though this is a pilot program made possible by student government, there is an opportunity for future expansion," Sustainable Carolina Program Manager Vik Agabekov said in an email statement. "Kenan-Flagler Business School liked the idea so much that they asked to use their own funding to receive a second mask recycling box."

Gray said she hopes more students use the recycling boxes to dispose of masks instead of throwing them in the trash.

“I think it's very easy to walk past like a mask recycling box or even like a recycling bin or compost bin just in general,” Gray said. “Think about it, think about what you're doing. Be aware of what you can be doing and how you are actually making an impact, because every individual is making an impact.”


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