Australian scientists have developed a groundbreaking solution to one of the 21st century’s most unexpected waste problems.
In a world-first study by RMIT University, research shows that disposable single-use face masks can be converted into building materials, a move that, if widely adopted, would simultaneously strengthen roads and pavements, help address COVID-19’s environmental impact and limit construction waste.
Mohammad Saberian, a research assistant at RMIT’s School of Engineering, said the ideal blend of 1% pulverised face mask to 99% processed building rubble would allow for three million masks to be recycled per every one kilometre of road.
Each kilometre, in turn, would save 93 tonnes of waste entering landfills.
"This initial study looked at the feasibility of recycling single-use face masks into roads, and we were thrilled to find it not only works but also delivers real engineering benefits,” he said in a media release. “We hope this opens the door for further research, to work through ways of managing health and safety risks at scale and investigate whether other types of PPE would also be suitable for recycling.”
In these times of global pandemic, researchers from the 🇦🇺 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology @RMIT have shown how disposable face masks could be recycled to make roads, in a circular economy solution to pandemic-generated waste♻️.— Australia in Belgium 🇦🇺🇪🇺🇧🇪🇱🇺 (@AusEmBrussels) February 26, 2021
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Every day, 6.8 billion disposable face masks are used around the world.
According to the United Nations, even when disposed of properly, around 75% of used masks and other pandemic-related waste like gloves and face shields will end up in landfill or oceans. Most disposable masks contain plastic, and further research shows they may contribute to rates of harmful microplastic fibres found on land and in waterways.
Meanwhile, the construction, renovation and demolition industries account for around half the world’s annual produced waste.
Saberian says his team will now work with other researchers and industries to understand the safest way to sterilize the masks so they can be safely collected for use from landfill sites.
“Waste materials are usually separated by their size and weight. Face masks can be extracted from the rest of the waste stream by blasts of air generated by either air classifiers or air knives,” he told Global Citizen. “We know that other researchers have looked at sterilization, and there are several methods available for disinfecting the face masks, including the thermal method and the microwave method that can kill 99.9% of viruses.”