The subject of face masks is much debated today. Which models exist, what differentiates them from each other, how long they can be used, how they should be worn. What is certain, however, is that there is only one major widespread problem and that is being able to buy them.
Those who are lucky enough to find a fully stocked pharmacy are faced with very high prices and the possibility of buying one per person. Those who are smarter rely on e-commerce, starting an intricate journey of names, codes, shipping costs, delivery waits for that last for months without having the confidence that they will ever arrive.
Since the government has made the use of masks mandatory, this situation has worsened since the leading manufacturers have the responsibility to supply the health and civil protection sector primarily, leaving the citizen in the background.
The reason why this situation has arisen, however, lies in the main characteristic of these masks, namely the fact that they are mainly disposable and go against all principles of sustainability. In fact, in just a few hours, these protection shields become a new health waste in addition to those that are drowning our entire ecosystem in a sea of non-recyclable products.
So, when we talk about disposable products, a reflection on the difference between the linear economy of which they are part and circular economy is spontaneously born. Because in the light of this lack, instead of understanding how to increase the production of disposable masks, we should invest in the research of how to use existing materials and technologies following precisely the principles of circularity.
Reduction, reuse and recycling are, in fact, the phases of this type of economy and are based on the elimination of waste of resources and energy:
- reduction: thanks to the design of long-lasting products made of simple elements, it is possible to reduce the consumption of raw materials;
- reuse: thanks to the reuse of raw materials, it is possible to conserve the energy invested in creating such a product without waste;
- recycling: when a product has reached the end of its life cycle, it can be broken down, and components can be used to create a new product.
Clearly, this reflection concerns one of the two categories of materials that characterize the circular economy, namely technical materials that are destined to be reused and not biological materials that are able to integrate again into the biosphere respecting the natural ecosystem.
And it is precisely technical materials that we talk about when we address the issue of masks. Fortunately, several companies and research centres are experimenting with sterilization systems that allow reducing waste and supply requirements. Thanks to instruments available in hospitals and elements such as steam and hydrogen peroxide, N95 masks can be decontaminated guaranteeing the same filtering quality as new ones. The Food and Drug Administration is, therefore, proceeding to approve these methods to spread these sanitization procedures in all hospitals, thus becoming a model of sustainable circularity.
We are well aware that it is generally from moments of difficulty that practical solutions can be found and precisely for this reason, the COVID-19 pandemic could be considered a real opportunity for reflection and action. Reflection on the practices of living today and how many changes we can implement in our daily lives to reduce environmental pollution in favour of sustainability. And action to apply as much as possible criteria of circularity in the responsible production and purchase of goods, avoiding to encourage the creation of waste. We must not forget that we are in the decade that separates us from achieving the objectives of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2030 and it is, therefore, time to apply all sustainable solutions to protect environmental resources that represent the only possible legacy for future generations.
Photos by Alexas Fotos from Pixabay