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A huge number of masks are thrown away in the world: designers have figured out how to give them a new life

As more people get vaccinated and mask wearing rules become less restrictive, some are finding ways to maintain, repurpose and recycle their face masks. The New York Times.

Photo: Shutterstock

At first, masks appeared as a sign - on the faces of people at airports, hospitals, on the streets - a sign that this virus should not be taken lightly.

Throughout the year, masks have become the object of scientific debate, a shield, a political symbol, a salvation for small businesses. They have appeared at meetings, weddings and funerals, on the red carpet and at the presidential inauguration. Masks were everywhere.

Now, after 14 months of using the mask for protection, the decline of its popularity seems to be already visible in some parts of the world. In late April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance stating that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks outdoors unless they are in a crowd. Already, the CDC has said that small groups of fully vaccinated people - more than 1,2 billion doses have been administered worldwide - can safely gather indoors without masks.

What will become of masks as open faces become more common? Some people are not yet sure that they will give them up, either because they are waiting for a vaccination, or because of fears - infection, judging others for not wearing a mask, or both. (And masks are still needed in most spaces.) People who stop wearing them on a daily basis can still keep their masks; so they will be ready for the flu season or other pandemic. However, it is obvious - judging by the garbage on city sidewalks and in parks - many are throwing it away.

But designers, informants, curators and environmentalists have many other ideas to perpetuate and bring to life the many artifacts of the pandemic era.

On the subject: Antivirus educational program: which masks are best suited for certain situations

From fashion to garbage

At the dawn of the pandemic, apparel and accessory designers turned to masks as demand peaked.

In the spring, Baggu, known for its reusable bags, introduced a line of masks. According to the company, 10 units were sold on the first day. Now it slows down, but does not stop the production of masks.

“I think the pandemic has changed the perception of mask use in North America,” said Dan Small, head of the Baggu partnership. "We feel that masks will fill their niche even as we begin to emerge from the pandemic."

Fashion designer Christian Siriano said his company has produced nearly three million masks. He noted that it is very important that the masks can be reused.

“I think the amount of disposable products is incredible right now,” he said.

Students also contributed to this effort. Hannah Konradt, a senior lecturer at the Fashion Institute of Technology, was sketching a wedding dress for a school project when the pandemic struck.

“I lost all motivation to make a dress that no one else would wear,” she said. "It was so frivolous."

So she started making masks from scraps of fabric, which she shared with friends, family and the postman. When she returned to bridal gown design, she added a 2020 twist: a skirt made up of 50 checkered crinoline masks that could be removed and donned as needed.

Now, in response to the increasing amount of waste in the form of masks, many designers and artists are finding their own ways to recycle fabric and disposable masks.

Clarissa Merle, architect and CEO of Paris-based company FabBRICK, has found a way to recycle textiles, including fabric masks, into colorful decorative bricks that can be used to create furniture, lighting fixtures, acoustic panels and wall partitions.

“I never thought I would use masks in my projects,” she said.

Shanana Campanaro, founder of Eskayel textile design studio in New York, has a textile recycling bin full of masks to donate.

“Disposal of masks is a huge problem,” Campanaro said. "I constantly see them scattered around the streets, and it upsets me that they don't end up in the bin."

Discarded masks also end up in oceans and waterways. Alison Jones, Clean Ocean Action Program Coordinator, said volunteers collected 2020 masks on New York and New Jersey beaches in October 680. Lynn Adams, president of the Pacific Beach Coalition in California, said volunteers report an average of 717 masks and gloves each month.

“This is a very small percentage of what actually is,” she said.

Marina DeBris, an artist from Sydney, Australia, has found around 300 face masks on beaches since last spring. She has incorporated them into wearable garbage outfits and installations such as The Inconvenience Store, which is full of repackaged items collected from the beaches.

Poramite Thantapalit, an artist based in New Jersey, started using masks in his sculptures and installations last year. Previously, he worked with plastic bottles, egg cartons and other recycled goods.

“I try to preserve the environment and reduce waste,” he said.

Seoul-based designer Haneul Kim has discovered a way to melt used face masks at high temperatures to create colorful folding plastic chairs. He said that it takes about 1500 masks to make one chair, but so far he has made 50. (For those who do mathematics, that's 75 masks.)

Do it yourself and donations

There are other, more affordable ways to deal with the problem. DIY (do it yourself) makers have turned old cloth masks into all sorts of things, including violin stands and doll clothes.

Christina Wong, a Los Angeles-based artist and founder of the Auntie Sewing Squad, whose volunteers have been making face masks throughout the pandemic, said they are now starting to think about how to change the purpose of face coverings. One volunteer made bow ties from them for his cat, Alex.

Joy Cho, a Los Angeles-based designer and founder of the Oh Joy! Fashion brand, plans to turn her family's worn-out masks into clothing patches.

“The best way to use your old cloth masks is to give new life to a pair of jeans or a jacket,” she said.

Miranda Bennett, designer and owner of Miranda Bennett studio in Austin, Texas, plans to wash and use some of her old masks in lavender sachets for wardrobes or lingerie drawers. She sees these creative projects as a way of reimagining the mask - "a symbol of separation and isolation" - as something new.

Kat Pfingst, a senior fashion design student at Drexel University, was thinking about turning her DIY masks into bracelets and realized they would be the perfect little lipstick pouches or hair clips.

Many epidemiologists say the next pandemic doesn't depend on if, but when.

“Pick your best masks and don't throw them away,” Bennett said. "Don't throw them in landfills."

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The rest can be given. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the New York Historical Society, archivists are collecting pandemic items such as masks for future exhibitions and are still accepting donations.

“We want to capture what it was like to survive this pandemic so that future generations can understand it,” said Margie Hofer, director of the Museum of the Historical Society of New York. So far, she says, the museum has acquired several "incredibly inventive and very New York" masks from local artists and Hofer's "constant favorite": a penguin-print mask donated by US chief infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Blank masks can also be donated to local textile processing plants in many cities, where they will be redistributed or converted into new materials.

“We have the opportunity to do something meaningful,” Bennett said. "This is a chance to find a" white line "even with these masks."

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