The Lab: Homemade Masks and Revisiting the 3 Rs

Apr 12, 2020
When I filmed Julia making a homemade face mask this weekend, my intention was to write a DIY post. But as I watched her discuss her materials (an old sheet, leftover jewelry wire, thick elastic cut thin enough to use), another angle emerged. 

We have entered an era where the CDC is posting articles on how to make your own mask and videos with the U.S. Surgeon General in full dress uniform folding an extra t-shirt. Scientists are rigorously testing the filtration merits of vacuum cleaner bags vs. pillowcases.

In the early 1980s, my mother’s first job out of college was working for the local waste management facility promoting their new recycling program. I vividly remember her coming to my elementary school classroom to teach us the three R’s — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. 

Unfortunately, time (and corporate propaganda) has obscured that the three R’s are actually a hierarchy. Reduce your waste, creatively reuse what’s left, and only thenrecycle. 

Recycling has never been as effective as people imagined, with “wishful recyclers” throwing their waste into the recycle bin and feeling satisfied for doing their part. (What we actually do when we aspirationally recycle is contaminate the whole recycling pool, but that’s another article…) More recently, changes in our ability to export “recyclable waste” have started to shut down even the illusion of recycling.

Now here we are. Given the option of an unmasked foray to the craft store (which may or may not be open) or cutting up bed sheets, the choice is clear. 

Today Julia is working in the hospital where the shortage of masks is real, and she must wear the masks she makes. Is there a lesson here for supply chains and national preparedness? Of course. But I also hope we hold on to one lesson this crisis is teaching us: Reduce and Reuse are always first on the list.

How are you reusing resources at home? Let us know in the comments.

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