During the COVID-19 outbreak, face masks have become an essential everyday accessory for Hong Kong people. To reduce waste and conserve limited supplies, people have devised various ways to reuse their masks, such as keeping them in an envelope, wrapping them in paper towels, or storing them in plastic mask holders – but these are not green choices.
So April Kwok, who specialises in product design, has created exquisite and environmentally-friendly mask holders – using some surprising materials.
When the second wave of Coronavirus infections set off in Hong Kong in March 2020, April discovered a large quantity of wallpaper samples in her company’s warehouse; and she came up with the idea of transforming these into mask holders. “The samples are durable and embody various attractive patterns such as animals, geometric and classical designs. We clear our warehouse periodically, and outdated wallpaper samples are just discarded. So I decided to upcycle them into eco-friendly, aesthetically pleasing, functional mask holders instead of burying them in landfill,” April says.
Eventually, some of their wallpaper suppliers learned about this, and donated boxes of brand new samples and wallpaper stocks which were going to be dumped – providing unlimited supplies of high-quality raw materials.
The production process might appear simple, but is full of challenges and limitations: “Although environmental protection is the main aim, the hygiene of the product cannot be ignored. The back of the wallpaper is different from the surface which is printed; it cannot be sterilised with alcohol, so is not suitable for contact with the mask. So I tried folding the wallpaper in half: this allows the colourful pattern to show on both sides, and enables the mask holder to be sanitised multiple times,” April explains.
After several additional modifications and coating with disinfectant spray that can last for three months, these upcycled wallpaper mask holders are both durable and hygienic.
The production of the mask holders has also provided support for less fortunate members of the community during the fight against the virus. April's team decided to entrust a group of low-income residents of subdivided apartments, who were being assisted by the Caritas’ “Neighbourhood Kitchen” project, with folding the wallpaper mask holders – allowing them to earn extra income and help their families make ends meet.
Explains social worker Leung Ka Chung, Derek, in charge of the “Neighbourhood Kitchen” project: “Residents in subdivided flats in the Western District live a hard life due to their high rental costs, which account for more than 30% of their household incomes. So the Caritas Mok Cheung Sui Kun Community Centre launched a project two years ago, in which participants cook food donated by generous nearby shop owners, and eat together. So they no longer dine in their tiny cubicles; they get together and become ‘meal pals’ who share their food and lives.”
The “Neighbourhood Kitchen” located on the inner street of Shek Tong Tsui in the Western District occupies only a few hundred square feet, and is a former pizza shop equipped with cookers and large fridges. The cooking activities have been suspended due to the pandemic, but this small shared space has been transformed into a temporary workshop for making the wallpaper mask holders. Derek continues: “Since the pandemic has emerged again in recent months, many grassroots citizens have taken pay cuts and even got laid off. April’s team contacted us right away after completing the design of the mask holder, hoping the neighbours in the community would take part in the production to ease their financial distress.”
Zhang Ling Hua (Hua) is one of the part-time workers folding the wallpaper mask holders. “We can fold about a thousand in around two hours,” she says – folding mask holders while her son plays nearby with a neighbour's daughter. Hua chats with the neighbours she is working with, making the workshop’s atmosphere cheerful and positive.
Hua explains that she used to work part-time in a supermarket to help the family while her child was in kindergarten; but classes have been suspended due to the pandemic, and she has no choice but to stop working to take care of her son, leaving her husband as the sole breadwinner for the family. "Working here, I can earn extra income while taking care of my kid. More importantly, I can air my grievances with a group of neighbours! The pandemic has made everyone's lives very difficult, so we need to give each other moral support to survive.”
During the prolonged fight against the virus, everyone in the community must step up mutual care and support, while maintaining health precautions. Hactl is playing its modest part in supporting the most needy in the community, by ordering wallpaper mask holders to protect its staff and express its sincere appreciation for their dedication and perseverance in keeping the terminal running smoothly.