Safely and Sustainably Recycling PPE

Have you ever wondered what to do with your disposable face masks when you’re done with them? A simple question from an employee kickstarted a big change at Nature’s Way.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in so many ways, from the ways we work to how we travel and shop for groceries. It has also created an incredible amount of waste as businesses, restaurants, and individuals took important steps to protect themselves and their livelihoods — think takeout containers from your favorite restaurants and, of course, face masks. These implementations were necessary as people adapted to the changing guidelines and protocols, but also made it more difficult to maintain a low-waste lifestyle and care for the planet.

If you've been wearing surgical-style disposable masks while out and about, you know they can't be recycled or reused after a wear or two. Have you ever wondered what happens to your face mask when you're done with it, and are you concerned with the amount of waste you may be creating? You're not alone — many Nature's Way employees were wondering the same thing, and a beneficial change sprouted from a simple question. 

In the past several years, we've implemented sustainability-focused initiatives like using 97% post-consumer recycled materials for our herbs packaging, and now our manufacturing facilities and headquarters in Green Bay, Wisconsin has taken sustainability one step further with a new personal protective equipment (PPE) recycling project to help keep those disposable masks and protective gear out of landfills.

According to Mark Hank, Environmental and Safety Specialist at Nature's Way HQ in Green Bay, one of the company's major sustainability goals is sending less waste to landfills. “We're always looking for ways to reduce our environmental impact,” he says. Nature's Way prioritizes recycling, but not everything can be recycled. When recycling is not a possibility, a team works to identify opportunities to divert waste from landfills.

After contacting a few vendors about recycling the PPE worn by employees in the manufacturing facilities, including shoe covers, hair nets, disposable ear plugs, and protective suits, as well as face masks, the team joined forces with a local waste removal company and its waste-to-energy program. Bins are picked up and sent to a facility where the materials are incinerated and converted into clean energy — renewable energy that is developed using limited resources with a limited carbon footprint.

The program has been very well-received by employees in Green Bay; there are 12 total bins between two buildings. “It's been six weeks and we're already sending [a batch] to the waste-to-energy facility,” Hank says. Since beginning the program in April, the Wisconsin Nature's Way team has sent approximately 500 pounds of PPE to the facility. “I anticipate that number will grow as the company gets closer to the zero landfill waste goal,” says Mark.

Where does Hank hope Nature's Way will be on their sustainability journey in five years? “I think we'll be closer to less environmental impact [overall],” he says. “We have a goal to be at zero landfill waste by the end of 2023. [I'm hoping for] much less waste, more reuse.”

Hank calls Nature's Way's sustainability initiatives and goals “forward-thinking, conservation-oriented, and innovative” and is proud to be part of a team leading change both large and small — as are many Nature's Way employees, who find ways to care for the planet at work and at home. “One of our managers and her team went out on Earth Day to clean up public parks,” he shares. “As a company, we talk about our mission of helping people live healthier lives. Keeping the environment clean helps people do that as well.”