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Disposable Mask Waste on Campus: Please Be Mindful of Your Environmental Impact

Disposable mask near statue of St. Thomas of VillanovaAfter reading about the 130 billion disposable masks used globally each month during the height of the pandemic, according to the Sierra Club, I couldn’t help but see all of the masks littered across the campus, even nearby the statue of St. Thomas of Villanova, the University patron.

Additional research revealed the personal protective equipment (PPE) waste has been observed in the ocean and washing up on shores. It threatens ocean life, like whales and turtles.

And, according to a story from the MIT News Office, the cost to our environment will only continue. “The Covid-19 pandemic is estimated to generate up to 7,200 tons of medical waste every day, much of which is disposable masks. And even as the pandemic slows down in some parts of the world, health care workers are expected to continue wearing masks most of the time.”

I reached out to Villanova’s Sustainability Office to ask “what can we do?” Turns out masks are difficult to recycle, but the office found a company that handles them and responded, “If you collect them, we will fund a recycling solution.”

I expected to find a handful, maybe 50. But the problem of one person accidentally dropping a mask was magnified when there are thousands of students, faculty, staff, and visitors. I would collect what I saw along 2-3-mile runs, circling, eventually, the whole campus.

Map of running route

An example of a typical day’s route around campus.

Yet each morning I ventured out, there were new masks to find in the same places. Some days topped 40-60 masks, but it wasn’t until I passed 400 masks in less than a month that I understood the scope of the  problem.

Why was this happening?

I never saw anyone drop a mask, so I pondered where they appeared and reflected about how they may have appeared there. While the whole campus had a least some mask litter, most was squished near cars, frozen on pathways, dangling from plants in front of academic buildings and residence halls…even blown against the fences of our beloved campus community garden.

As of this morning, Jan. 13, I have collected 729 disposable masks, along with 65 reusable ones. 

Disposable Mask Chart

It’s clear that this is not one person or group. It is a community problem. Likewise, this could be solved by the community. It takes all of us.

I know. Masks are no fun. Just one more thing to carry. And disposable masks (vital protection during a public health crisis) are treated like plastic bags or soda cans. If they are dropped, people don’t go back to find them, and if seen on the ground, they are ignored. But if everyone ignores them, what then?

Disposable mask hanging from plants on Villanova's campus.

A disposable mask, one of more than 794 masks collected, hanging from plants on campus.

In a community of thousands, nearly 800 masks left on the ground is completely avoidable. If our community can be mindful of their masks and reuse them, or discard them when they are worn out, we can reduce the issue, at least in our small community.

Better yet! Drop them off to me, and I’ll recycle them.

A big improvement would be to invest in reusable masks, but, at the very least, be as mindful of those items as you are of your phone.

If you dropped your phone, you’d go back to get it.

Villanova can be a model for how sustainability can succeed beyond campus. And working together to make small changes, just as we have to ensure campus environmental health and safety, we can model how to make a big difference in our world.

Learn more about the impact of mask waste (and possible solutions) during the pandemic through the Library’s digital resources:

Face Masks, PPE and Throwaway Cutlery — After Covid, Where’s Next for Sustainable Packaging? The Global Pandemic Pushed Consumer Behaviour Back Toward Single-use Plastics to Avoid Contamination. So How Can Short-term Hygiene Requirements Be Balanced with Long-term Sustainability Goals?The Guardian (London, England), 2021.

Hartanto, Broto Widya, and Dyah Samti Mayasari. “Environmentally Friendly Non-medical Mask: An Attempt to Reduce the Environmental Impact from Used Masks During COVID 19 Pandemic.” Science of the Total Environment, vol. 760, 2021.

Majerník, Milan, et al. “Environmental Waste Management of Disposable Surgical Coverage.Polish Journal of Environmental Studies, vol. 30, no. 6, 2021, pp. 5163-5174.

Torres, Fernando G., and Gabriel E. De-la-Torre. “Face Mask Waste Generation and Management During the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Overview and the Peruvian Case.Science of the Total Environment, vol. 786, 2021.

Venesoja, Anu, et al. “Healthcare Workers’ Experiences and Views of Using Surgical Masks and Respirators, and Their Attitudes on the Sustainability: A Semi-Structured Survey Study During COVID-19.” Nursing Reports, vol. 11, no. 3, 2021, pp. 615-628.


Shawn ProctorShawn Proctor is Communication and Marketing Program Manager at Falvey Memorial Library.

 


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Cat in the Stax: Wildcat Thrifting

By Ethan Shea

"Photo from Wildcat Thrift Event"

Vendor Station at Wildcat Thrift Event

Last Friday, Villanova hosted the first-ever Wildcat Thrift Shop. As someone who loves to thrift, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to write about another interest of mine while hopefully learning something in the process.

The recent thrifting event seemed to be very popular, and I’m not surprised. There are plenty of reasons to thrift.

For one, new clothes are ridiculously expensive. As cute as that jacket at Urban Outfitters is, I can’t bring myself to spend $90 on it, so if you’re looking to save a few bucks, thrifting is the way to go.

"Students waiting to enter a busy Wildcat Thrift event"

Students wait to enter a busy Wildcat Thrift event

Thrifting is also sustainable! By re-using or repurposing an article of clothing, you’re preventing it from ending up in a landfill. You’re also distancing yourself from the waste that comes with packaging new products. I can confirm from working in retail for a couple years that A LOT of waste is created in the process of shipping new clothing to stores.

Just as thrifting invites shoppers to make a positive environmental impact, Falvey Library is keen on sustainability initiatives. The JSTOR Sustainability database is accessible through Falvey and will keep you updated on all things eco-friendly. If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out this blog from earlier this year.

Although Villanova’s recent event was all about finding new outfits, thrifting is not only about clothes. You can find all sorts of strange and entertaining items at thrift stores. One of my favorite purchases was a Coca-Cola themed toaster designed to toast hotdogs and hotdog buns. Did I ever use this toaster? No, but it was only $5 and a great conversation starter, so I have no regrets.

And don’t forget about used books! Most thrift shops sell books for only a few dollars, and you can usually find some classics on their shelves. The amount of second-hand books I’ve bought rivals the number of books I’ve checked out from the library, which goes to show that reading can find its way into just about any activity.

Finally, furniture is another great item to thrift. My aunt and uncle are experts at taking used furniture and “flipping,” or refurbishing and altering, the old pieces to make them into something that is both stylish and seemingly brand new. They were actually featured in an episode (Season 14 Episode 4) of Flea Market Flip on HGTV!

A few places near campus to thrift are the Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop, the Goodwill in East Norriton (my local Goodwill), and the Junior League Thrift Shop.

Altogether, for the sake of your pockets, your style, and our environment, be sure to visit your local thrift shop as soon as possible!


Headshot of Ethan SheaEthan Shea is a first-year English Graduate Student at Villanova University and Graduate Assistant at Falvey Memorial Library.


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Stay Informed on Sustainability with JSTOR’s Sustainability Database

Do you have an interest in sustainability research? If so, be sure to check out JSTOR Sustainability, one of Falvey’s resources. This database provides a wide range of scholarly journals, ebooks, and research reports in effort to help you stay informed on topics related to sustainability. Having celebrated the landmark 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, there is no better time to dig into this dynamic resource!

Within this database, users have the option to search for content on a broad range of topics related to sustainability. Some featured topics include:

Protesters holding a sign that says "ask not what your planet can do for you. Ask what you can do for your planet"• Agricultural productivity
• Agroforestry
• Carbon footprint
• Climate change policy
• Conservation biology
• Emissions trading
• Energy policy
• Environmental education
• Environmental engineering
• Environmental history
• Environmental law
• Food security
• Green buildings
• Human ecology
• Industrial ecology
• Land use planning
• Natural resources
• Nature conservation
• Population geography
• Renewable energy
• Resource economics
• Sustainable cities
• Sustainable urban infrastructure
• Transportation planning
• Urban development
• Waste management
• Water quality
• Wetland conservation

There are many other topics you can delve deeper into as well, depending on your interest or research needs.

Matters of sustainability impact all people, so the JSTOR Sustainability database could potentially be of use to not only scholars in environmental science/studies, sustainable engineering, global health and peace and justice fields, but really to anyone who has a general interest in climate studies or wants to learn more about living a sustainable life. In fact, Villanova University has expressed a pledge to sustainability efforts through its Climate Commitment, so the information found within this database is of great significance to all Villanovans—past, present, and future.

If you need help using this or any other library resource, you can Live Chat or email a reference librarian at ref@villanova.edu.

Be sure to check out JSTOR Sustainability to stay informed on the latest and greatest information in sustainability research.


headshot picture of regina duffy

Regina Duffy is a Communication and Marketing Program Manager at Falvey Memorial Library.

 

 


 


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Remote Discoveries: Sustainability and Earth Month 2020

Next week, Villanova is hosting a virtual Teach-In to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This celebration falls within a larger Earth Month event, encouraging people to challenge themselves to live more sustainably. The webpage for the event can be found here, including subpages with specific information on how you can reduce your carbon footprint with small lifestyle changes.

With information broken down into Energy, Waste, Water, and Food concerns, the weekly sustainability challenges could offer a good way to become more mindful of your environmental impact.

 

Nate's South Philly Backyard


Personally, I will try one of the challenges to line dry my clothes instead of using the dryer. I think that spring’s arrival is the perfect time to try it out.

However, there are many great suggestions provided: reusing old clothing to make tote bags and bathmats, making hand sanitizer with few at-hand ingredients, and opting for biodegradable packaging when possible.

I have certainly become more conscious of my ecological footprint at these times, taking more time out to compost food waste and saving those horrifically bruised and soft vegetables for soup stocks.

I am spending more time in my backyard, preparing numerous buckets to plant herbs and vegetables in, as well as maintaining a compost bucket for personal use in addition to my weekly compost pickup bucket. Although these changes are small, I hope that I can continue them to be a more environmentally conscious person in the future.

Yet, it is important to recognize that these lifestyle changes must extend beyond the lock downs and shelter-in-place orders. In addition, many of the fault for carbon emissions are out of our own hands and backyards, requiring large-scale systemic change spearheaded by responsible governance.


 

I am sure many of us have seen the photos and videos circulating online that show skylines absent of smog, and oft-discrete wildlife venturing into areas normally dominated by people. However, it is important to recognize that the current emission reductions brought on by Covid-19 lockdowns are not long-term changes. A recent article from the International Energy Agency (linked here) clearly express these concerns.

“We may well see CO2 emissions fall this year as a result of the impact of the coronavirus on economic activity, particularly transport. But it is very important to understand that this would not be the result of governments and companies adopting new policies and strategies. It would most likely be a short-term blip that could well be followed by a rebound in emissions growth as economic activity ramps back up.

Real, sustained reductions in emissions will happen only if governments and companies fulfill the commitments that they have already announced–or that they will hopefully announce very soon.”

–Dr. Fatih Birol, Executive Director International Energy Agency


Nate GosweilerNate Gosweiler is a graduate assistant for Falvey Memorial Library and a graduate student in the Communication department. This week, he is slogging through some more of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.


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Last Modified: April 16, 2020