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Researchers Recycle Single-Use Masks for Roads

Friday, February 12, 2021

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Researchers from RMIT University have recently developed a recycling solution for one item generating a rather large amount of pandemic waste: single-use face masks.

In the study, the research team shows that materials recycled from nearly 3 million recycled face masks could be used to produce just one kilometer of a two-lane road. By recycling the materials, the university reports that 93 tons of pandemic-generated waste was diverted from landfills.

Recycled Roads

The first study of its kind to investigate potential civil construction applications of disposable surgical face masks, RMIT researchers claim the combination of shredded single-use face masks and processed building rubble meet civil engineering safety standards, and that the masks add stiffness and strength to the final product.

Professor Jie Li leads the RMIT School of Engineering research team, which focuses on recycling and reusing waste materials for civil construction.

The combined materials are envisioned to be utilized for base layers of roads and pavements. With an estimated 6.8 billion disposable face masks being used across the globe each day, the study certainly has a lot of potential material to work with.

RMIT University

Researchers from RMIT University have recently developed a recycling solution for one item generating a rather large amount of pandemic waste, single-use face masks.

Made up of four layers, the roads consist of a subgrade, base, subbase and are topped with asphalt. The processed building rubble—also known as recycled concrete aggregate—can be used for all three base layers as the material successfully withstands heavy pressure. However, in adding the shredded face mask material, researchers found that in addition to strengthening the material, the process addresses both PPE disposal and construction waste.

“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 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.”

By combining 1% recycled face masks and 99% process building rubble, the team found an optimal mixture that delivers on strength and maintains cohesion between the two materials. Researchers also tested the mixture against stress, acid and water resistance, as well as strength, deformation and dynamic properties, which met all relevant civil engineering specifications.

RMIT also notes, that while the study used a small amount of unused surgical face masks, other research has investigated effective methods for disinfecting and sterilizing used masks. Most notable, a comprehensive review on the disinfection or sterilization of masks found that 99.9% of viruses could be killed off by spraying the masks with an antiseptic solution and microwaving for one minute.

In addition to working with materials for road construction, RMIT researchers are also looking at using the shredded masks for concrete. Li reports that his team was inspired to look at other uses for the masks after seeing so many be littered in the streets.

“We know that even if these masks are disposed of properly, they will go to landfill or they’ll be incinerated,” he said. “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.”

The study, “Repurposing of COVID-19 Single-Use Face Masks for Pavements Base/Subbase” has since been published in the journal Science of the Total Environment. Co-authors of the study include RMIT Indigenous Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow Shannon Kilmartin-Lynch and Research Assistant Mahdi Boroujeni.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Colleges and Universities; COVID-19; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Environmental Controls; Latin America; North America; Recycled building materials; Research and development; Roads/Highways; Z-Continents

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