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Three people standing holding bags of mask with one person crouching holding bag of masks behind cardboard boxes

A Crafty Way to Fight COVID-19 and Waste

Last March, little was known about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and no timeline was set for a return to normal, but three things were certain: personal protective (PPE) equipment was in shortage, disposable masks would create waste, and San Francisco non-profit SCRAP had plenty of recycled fabric to spare.

At the time, as public health officials and the media stressed the importance of wearing a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19, people across the country flocked to stores and online retailers to buy disposable surgical masks. Though masks are essential to public health during the pandemic, disposable ones can come at a cost to our environment. In Wuhan, the first epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, hospitals produced six times more PPE waste per day than prior to the pandemic. At its peak, Wuhan produced 240 tons of plastic waste. If the U.S. were to follow, it would generate a year’s worth of medical waste, 5 million tons, in two months

To meet the desperate need for PPE at the beginning of the pandemic, SCRAP, which specializes in creative reuse of discarded materials, mobilized its powerful army of volunteers, artists, and other supporters to start cranking out reusable masks. With the support of a zero waste grant from the San Francisco Department of the Environment (SF Environment), to date SCRAP has made more than 2,000 reusable masks for the City. It partnered with the African American Arts and Cultural Center to distribute them in San Francisco’s historically marginalized communities in Bayview, Fillmore/Western Addition, and Tenderloin District.

Fabric scraps with different prints

SCRAP is the nation’s oldest creative reuse center, established in  1976. As experts in creative reuse, SCRAP is the go-to place for San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) teachers to access  free or low-cost recycled material for arts and crafts projects and general classroom supplies. The non-profit continues to make a huge impact on San Francisco’s zero waste goals: every year, San Francisco students and artists divert about 200 tons of arts and crafts materials that would otherwise have gone to landfill.

In early March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SCRAP closed its doors and paused in-person workshops. Yet, even with their doors were closed, SCRAP’s first question was, “How do we continue to serve our community?”— and  the Face Mask Making Program was born. The program produces hand-made reusable masks and distributes them via partner organizations.

With a $10,000 grant from SF Environment and relying on their network and word-of-mouth, SCRAP mobilized quickly. SCRAP community members made hundreds of reusable masks to help combat the spread of COVID-19 and keep San Franciscans and the environment safe. Leah Fong, one of the mask-makers, contributed her sewing skills and talked about her reasons for participating. “During this pandemic, many of the most-at-risk residents may not have time to sew or buy masks,” she said. “I wanted to help as much as I could with the extra fabric and materials I had at home, because everyone deserves to have a mask to feel protected.” SCRAP provides fabric and materials from their reuse center for mask-makers, though many have their own or had previously purchased fabric from the organization’s depot center prior to its closing (yes, reuse!).

 Woman with black-framed glasses, flower mask holding a roll of fabric Rows of masks on table

Mask-makers like Laura Chinn-Smoot understand  the impact the SCRAP mask-making initiative has on the environment and the community. A SCRAP regular since the 1980s and a former SFUSD public school teacher, Laura relied on SCRAP for her classroom arts and craft projects. Laura recalled, “When I graduated from my 36-year SF public school teaching career, I knew exactly where to send my cool ‘SCRAPs’ as I cleared out my classroom.” After retiring, Laura donated all of her school supplies to SCRAP to give them a second life. Now Laura contributes to the San Francisco community by making comfortable and stylish masks with SCRAP. Laura makes each mask with care, sewing her masks for comfort and durability. She carefully selects durable elastics, fun patterns, and always makes sure to include instructions for care and handling. 

By July  2020, 63 sewers dropped off or mailed five to 50 reusable masks each, totaling 1,100 masks that were delivered to the African American Art & Culture Complex. These masks benefited Mo’MAGIC, Regina’s Door, The Village Project, SF Collective Impact, and many other San Francisco community-based organizations. And while the initial program was launched to meet the huge need for PPE in the early days of the pandemic, it has continued to serve the ongoing need for PPE that won’t harm the environment. In November, SCRAP surpassed their initial goal of 2,000 masks with 2,238 masks made.  Their new goal is to make 3,000 masks. SCRAP is still in search of more mask-makers– no sewing experience necessary, and materials can be provided. The goal is to make sure San Franciscans are masked and to extend the life of the fabrics.

Take Action

Support SCRAP’s Face Mask Making Program by volunteering as a mask-maker, donating fabrics and materials, or shopping at the SCRAP reuse center. To join the community of mask-makers, email Danielle Grant: [email protected].

Join the SCRAP community in reducing waste: when possible, choose a reusable mask or face covering and make sure to toss your disposable masks, gloves, and disinfectant wipes in the black bin.

About the Zero Waste Grant Program
The Zero Waste Grant Program awards grant funding to non-profit organizations whose work in source reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting helps San Francisco towards zero waste. From community composting workshops, to implementing composting and recycling at local events, to collecting textile clothing, these organizations exemplify diverse strategies to achieve zero waste. 

 


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