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French company is recycling used face masks into useful objects

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Plaxtil co-founder Jean-Marc Neveu stands and grabs a large bin of face masks soon to be recycled into plastic objects.

Plaxtil co-founder Jean-Marc Neveu with used face masks in the factory where they are transformed. John Laurenson

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A decontamination machine that looks like a large tumble dryer bathes hundreds of used face masks in the glow of ultraviolet rays. Welcome to a French recycling facility where face masks — worn and thrown away by people all over the world — are turned into plastic objects like phone holders and coat hangers.

The recycling company, in the western city of Châtellerault, is called Plaxtil. Jean-Marc Neveu is the co-founder.

“Initially, our business was making plastic parts for the aeronautic and car industries,” he said, speaking in French. “Then, one day, a charity came along, asking us if we could do anything with the tons of clothes they receive but aren’t good enough to be sold.”

Like good Frenchmen, Neveu said, their response was to come up with a recipe. They transform the plastic that makes up 70% of some textiles into plastic mush. Then, the mush is turned into objects. That process put the company into good position to recycle masks during the pandemic.

“When masks came along, we were all ready because disposable masks are practically all plastic fiber. Now, we have transformed 25 million of them,” he said.

A school kit, including a ruler, set square and protractor, made from used face masks. (John Laurenson)

Surrounded by recycling machines, a Plaxtil employee shows one of the things they make out of masks: school kits — ruler, set square and protractor — in bluey-black, the color of today’s batch of masks. Plaxtil has made 100,000 of these for municipalities that distribute them for free in schools. One of these cities is Limoges, where Marjorie Lopez is in charge of procurement.

“We put recycle bins in all our City Hall offices, libraries and schools. Some firms also wanted them — the railway company and the Crédit Agricole bank, for example,” she said.

The municipality has more than 200 bins in all. It pays about $90 per 500-mask recycle bin to have the masks picked up, sorted and transformed into things customers can choose, like those school kits.

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