Tote bag designs by Cael Parker.
ModiMask: Turning used surgical masks into tote bags
The rise of Covid brought about a global increase in society’s use of medical masks, which began to fill our landfills with synthetic material that won’t decompose. Like many others, I used medical masks to protect myself and my community, but I felt guilty throwing them away. I held onto my used medical masks and waited for an idea to strike.
While in school for sculpture, I was always more interested in creating art that had practical function instead of purely for display purposes. I learned to be aware of what materials I was choosing to use in order to prioritize sustainability.
Could this material be broken down easily or could it last a long time? Once we are done with this object, where does it go, how do we dispose of it? What does this material’s life look like after we are done with it?
My utility focused mindset and sustainable material interest, in conjunction with my growing accumulation of used medical masks, led to ModiMask. ModiMask are a variety of tote bags and backpacks, created using already worn medical masks. I combined the increasingly popular trend of reusable bags with my leftover single-use masks, and was able to give them new life.
Troubleshooting and creating with masks
A major concern was the health risk of using used masks. Since I used both my own masks and donated masks from my community, I came up with a process to help sanitize the masks. With each batch of masks, I would isolate them for at least two weeks (most went to a full month) before disinfecting them and putting them into another isolation to air out.
After the rigorous sanitization process, I still needed to process the masks by cutting the masks to unfold them and cutting off the elastic straps. I kept all of these cut off pieces and am currently trying to come up with designs to incorporate them into the bags. Processing the masks takes around four hours depending on how large the batch is.
I was limited by the size of material the masks provided, but I was able to solve the issue by creating multiple patchwork designs that allowed me to incorporate the natural square shape of the mask. This choice ensured that I would be able to limit the amount of waste created by my project.
I have three base designs for the bags that incorporate a variety of other repurposed zippers and straps from art thrift stores. Each bag takes between 10 – 12 hours to make.
The reversible tote bag that can incorporate n95 masks uses 45 masks.
The zipper tote that is still double lined and wider uses 30 masks.
The small fashion backpack uses at least 48 masks.
This project has become a passion pastime for me. It allows me to make beautiful bags while also preventing waste from going into our landfills. This idea did not come from any particular source, but rather came from my own personal observations with the present and my worry for the future. I hope to continue to refine this idea as I pursue a degree in product innovation in graduate school. Further development would include making the deconstruction process and bag creation more efficient and streamline so I am able to accept more mask donations. I intend to focus on creation and design with a focus on sustainability.
As we move forward, our solutions must be centered around sustainability through innovation. This mask bag is an archival piece for the era we are living in and an appropriate solution to problems of our time.