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Used masks and gloves tossed away: you’ve got questions, we’ve got some answers

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Since the onset of the current public health crisis, you’ve no doubt noticed discarded COVID-19-related products in your neighbourhood, including masks. Many of you have shared your concerns with us about this problem and about the renewed interest in single-use products.

So let’s try and get to the heart of these issues, via a Q&A:

Question: Should we be sounding the alarm on pandemic-related disposable products? Is this shaping up to be an environmental disaster?

Answer: It’s true – we are indeed seeing this new type of waste items these days. But we don’t yet have all the data on where they’re ending up once they have been used and discarded.

Does that mean we shouldn’t be condemning their proliferation? No - we need to tackle this problem right away, and above all, propose more sustainable alternatives.

Question: How concerned should we be about the use by the general public of disposable masks and gloves?

Answer: At Équiterre, what troubles us in particular is the perception that if a product is disposable, it is necessarily safer than a reusable product, when that is not always the case. What we’re talking about here, of course, is their use by ordinary citizens as opposed to health care personnel (see the question below).

Whether a mask is reusable or disposable, contamination can occur on any surface. The key is to follow the basic rules of hygiene: wash your hands properly, and wash and handle your reusable mask according to public health guidelines.

As for gloves, their use by the general public has been criticized by public health authorities...here again, we should follow their guidance. But the correct information needs to reach citizens, and for that to happen, much remains to be done.

Question: A number of companies are now producing reusable masks. Enthusiasm for these products is encouraging, but is there a danger of overconsumption?

Answer: At Équiterre, we are constantly encouraging waste reduction at the source.

We are happy to see the enthusiasm for reusable vs. disposable products, provided that people follow the safety rules and every effort is made to extend their life cycle and reduce their environmental footprint. How? By properly maintaining these products, mending them when they are in need of repair and making them from recycled materials, for example.

Question: There is also much concern about the waste produced by hospitals. Should we be worried about the degree to which washable or reusable protection equipment is available for use in health care facilities?

Answer: Yes, this is a big concern. Solutions exist at both the individual and institutional level, be it in the form of washable scrub gowns and methods of disinfecting and reusing certain mask types, for example. Some of these alternatives are already available, while others will likely emerge in the coming months and years.

However, not all of these solutions are available or accessible at this time. Health care personnel have a lot on their plate right now, and we mustn’t add to their burden by blaming them for not using something they don’t yet have access to.

We must all be better prepared in the event that another similar crisis occurs in the future. We at Équiterre believe that excellent public hygiene and responsible waste management are not mutually exclusive...even in times of crisis.