EXETER, ONT. -- It’s estimated Canada will produce 63,000 tons of COVID-19 related personal protective equipment waste this year.

Most of it ends up in landfill, but in Exeter, at least some of the PPE waste will not be headed to the dump.

"The things that go in there are masks, face shields, disposable gowns, and latex gloves," says Eco Exeter member and Grade 9 student at South Huron District secondary school, Emerson Thompson.

Nine PPE collection boxes are set up across Exeter. Two at Hansen’s Independent Grocery Store, one at a local daycare, one at Exeter Villa Long Term Care Home, one at Exeter elementary and four at South Huron District secondary school.

That’s where the idea came from. The school’s cosmetology teacher, Tory Eckstein, was using the Green Circle Salon boxes to recycle things like hair dye, aluminum foil, even hair, to help make the program waste-free.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Green Circle started to accept masks, gowns, and gloves. The school’s environmental group jumped on board.

"In our school, teachers are required to wear disposable masks, and anytime a child is sick, the principal has to fully gown up. All of that is single use, so we have a lot of waste right now, so we really can’t turn off the faucet, but we can try to find an alternative on what to do with the waste," say Eco Exeter supervisor, Amanda Keller.

After Green Circle picks up the used gloves, masks, and gowns, they remove any metal from the masks before incinerating the material. The heat is used to make clean energy, and all fumes are filtered, says Eco Exeter. Any remaining ash is used in construction materials.

"It’s an expensive process. Green Circle Salons says that the profit margin is pretty low because of shipping and processing. So, each box costs $75, so it’s a little pricey, but it’s the next best alternative to recycling," says Keller.

Eco Exeter has spent all their fundraising dollars on the nine PPE collection containers. They’ll be applying to the Grand Bend and Area Community Fund for more money to provide more PPE recycling containers to Exeter and surrounding area.

"There’s so many masks and we can’t stop using them cause we’re in a time when we need them. It may not be the best way, but it’s the best way we’ve got. I think it’s a good way to recycle the masks and keep the energy and environment good," says Eco Exeter member, Ryan Marsh.

You don’t need to be an environmental organization or run a salon to join the PPE program. Anyone can buy at PPE collection box. You can find out more here.