Engineers Develop a Way to Recycle Single Wear PPE Facemasks into Road Materials

RMIT researchers based in Melbourne, Australia, have developed a technique to incorporate single-use PPE face masks into the materials used for making roads. This is a huge relief due to the strain single-use PPE masks have placed on waste management and the environment, with 53 million masks being thrown to the trash every single day just in the UK.[1]

The team’s work was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, and it details how the RMIT team were able to mix shredded PPE face masks with processed building materials to create a usable road that met all civil engineering safety standards.[2]

The leader of the RMIT engineering team, Professor Jie Li, remarked that “We know that even if these masks are disposed of properly, they will go to landfill or they’ll be incinerated”. “The COVID-19 pandemic has not only created a global health and economic crisis but has also had dramatic effects on the environment. If we can bring circular economy thinking to this massive waste problem, we can develop the smart and sustainable solutions we need.”[3]

Based on their trials, a one kilometre stretch of road with just two lanes would be able to contain 3 million disposable face masks, and if this idea was implemented on a much larger scale, then it could prevent 93 tonnes of PPE waste going to the landfill, since globally, over 6.8 billion face masks are used every day.[4]

But surprisingly enough, adding the masks as a road building material does not just serve as a means for removing them from landfills. The shredded masks, when mixed with recycled concrete aggregate (RCA), which is essentially processed building rubble, actually enhanced the RCA material which is commonly used in the lower three layers of road making.[5] Recycling PPE masks like this serves an engineering purpose as well as just solving an environmental issue.

Just 1% of shredded PPE face mask mixed with 99% RCA improved the material’s strength and cohesion with this material passing every test regarding stress, acid, and water resistance for civil engineering requirements of road materials.[6]

“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,” said first author Dr Mohammad Saberian.

“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.”[7]

Although this move has been celebrated by many industry leaders, others have been quick to point out that this may be a “sub-optimal” solution to waste management. According to Dr Mayuri Wijayasundara, a lecturer in engineering management at Deakin University, “thinking of design at an earlier stage is the ideal solution. If something is single use, you need to ideally make them compostable or design the mask for reuse.”[8]

The worries of Wijayasundara are mainly in relation to how microplastic fibres from the masks, once mixed in with road materials, will interact with the wider environment since microplastics are already posing risks to the environment and ecosystems around the world.[9]

 


[1] The Guardian, “53m discarded Covid face masks in UK ‘could be polluting the sea’”, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/18/coronavirus-face-masks-could-be-polluting-the-sea

[2] Science Direct, “Repurposing of COVID-19 single-use face masks for pavements base/subbase”, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969721005957

[3] RMIT, “Recycling face masks into roads to tackle COVID-generated waste”, https://www.rmit.edu.au/news/all-news/2021/feb/recycling-face-masks-into-roads-to-tackle-covid-generated-waste

[4] The Engineer, “Recycled PPE could make roads to tackle waste”, https://www.theengineer.co.uk/recycled-ppe-could-make-roads-to-tackle-waste/

[5] The Engineer, “Recycled PPE could make roads to tackle waste”, https://www.theengineer.co.uk/recycled-ppe-could-make-roads-to-tackle-waste/

[6] RMIT, “Recycling face masks into roads to tackle COVID-generated waste”, https://www.rmit.edu.au/news/all-news/2021/feb/recycling-face-masks-into-roads-to-tackle-covid-generated-waste

[7] RMIT, “Recycling face masks into roads to tackle COVID-generated waste”, https://www.rmit.edu.au/news/all-news/2021/feb/recycling-face-masks-into-roads-to-tackle-covid-generated-waste

[8] The Guardian, “Australian researchers say used face masks could be recycled to make roads”, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/feb/04/australian-researchers-say-used-face-masks-could-be-recycled-to-make-roads#:~:text=Disposable%20face%20masks%20used%20to,masks%20and%20processed%20building%20rubble.

[9] The Guardian, “Microplastic pollution in oceans vastly underestimated – study”, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/22/microplastic-pollution-in-oceans-vastly-underestimated-study

 

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