What to do with your old cloth masks

As experts tell us to upgrade our cloth masks, what do we do with all our extras?
Multicolored masks for COVID-19 hanging from clothesline.
Fabric masks may still have some use, even if they aren't as effective as N95, KN95, or surgical masks. Pixabay

Every week it feels like something changes when it comes to COVID, be it a new variant, a new spike, a new magic “cure,” or a new shot we all need. But recently, the news hasn’t just been about what’s new. Just last week, the CDC announced that reusable cloth masks aren’t as safe as respirator masks in certain situations. One study showed that fabric coverings can sometimes net as low as 5 percent of aerosolized particles

For people trying to navigate the pandemic while also reducing their own waste, this might be a bit of a shock to the system, especially since plastic-based PPE can be a bane on recycling systems and ground water. While there’s advice out there on how to make the best use of N95 masks, you might be confused about what to do with your pile of fabric face coverings

The reality is that textile recycling isn’t accessible to everyone. However, there are a few options to explore when it comes to giving your ratty old masks new life. 

A primer on textile recycling

Recycling fabrics is not as simple as recycling plastics, glass, and paper, namely because most popular fabrics are a mix of things. There are natural fibers like cotton, wool, and linen and synthetics like polyester, nylon, and so on. 

“Every fiber is not inherently good or bad, but you blend them together to have the right outcome for consumers in terms of how they want to wear their clothes,” says Alice Payne, an associate professor in fashion and program leader at the Centre for a Waste-Free World at Queensland University of Technology n Australia. This leads to a problem of collecting and separating these various fibers, Payne says, whether it’s a mask or an old piece of clothing. 

In theory, Payne says, cotton masks can be shredded and added to other fibers, and polyester ones could be turned into pellets. But actually getting a mask over to a facility that has those abilities can be incredibly challenging. “There’s no real existing mechanisms for where to put that,” says Robert Speight, a professor of microbial biotechnology also at Queensland University of Technology. “You can’t take it to a collection point or put it in your recycling bin like you put a Coke bottle.”

[Related: The ultimate guide to reusing and buying N95 masks]

You can search for fabric-disposal locations with this Earth 911’s recycling solution tool, but the options tend to be few and far between. (The closest ones to my Brooklyn home are in New Jersey and are only open to residents of the community). You’ll also need to call the facility to check if they take used fabric masks.  

So, what about dropping your old masks with your next Goodwill clothing drop? This might seem like a good idea at first, but there are a few caveats. First off, reusable masks aren’t likely to be reused in their current state—kind of in the same way that old underwear isn’t likely to end up on the sales racks of thrift stores in case of contamination. Likely, the masks will just be incinerated, says Kevin Dooley, the chief research scientist at Arizona State University’s Sustainability Consortium. And if you’re driving out to the donation spot just to drop off a few tiny pieces of fabric that will be burned, the greenhouse gas tradeoff probably isn’t any better than just sending them to the landfill.

“For the common person at a household level, the answer is simply toss it,” Dooley says. 

But if you live in an apartment building, work in a big office, or have a community center that lots of folks come to on a regular basis, it may be worth it to invest in a TerraCycle fabric clothing box. While the receptacle costs $300 upfront, if you have enough people using it, you could get a bunch of masks from going in the trash. 

What else can you do with cloth masks?

If none of these options seem doable, that’s completely understandable. “All of textile recycling is basically kind of in a nightmare state,” says Dooley. “Nothing that’s happening with masks is really all that different from the challenges that we broadly have.” 

So, like with other waste, you might need to get creative to give it a second life. Old face coverings can make for great scraps for quilting, making doll clothing, or even fashioning a hamster-sized hammock. You can also look to some of the world’s most creative dress designers and sculpture artists for inspiration.  

At the end of the day, any fabric masks you have that are still in good shape can make for a good second layer for COVID-risky measures like traveling or going to events. And who knows, with what the virus has shown us, another pandemic could creep up on us in the future—so having a backup stack isn’t a bad idea either.