Single-Use Face Masks Recycled Into Road Materials

Researchers found a way to repurpose single-use masks to create a solution to COVID-19-related waste.
Fabienne Lang
A sample of the blended road material using shredded face masks.RMIT University

Over 1.56 billion single-use face masks ended up in our oceans in 2020, and it's looking likely that number will remain as high for 2021. 

Not only are our oceans suffering, so are our landfills. Researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have now come up with a solution to recycle face masks into road materials to minimize such wastage.

Their study was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

How face masks become roads

The team mixed shredded single-use face masks and processed building rubble to create their road-making material — and it met civil engineering safety standards. 

Under one km (0.6 miles) of a two-lane highway could be paved by this recycled face mask material by using three million masks, which would prevent 93 tons of waste from ending up in landfills. Given the researchers pointed out approximately 6.8 billion single-use face masks are used every day at the moment, this recycling system would significantly minimize landfills overfilling. 

The team focused on processed building rubble, also known as recycled concrete aggregate (RCA) for the study as this rubble can be used as a base layer for roads. What it quickly discovered was that not only did the shredded face masks enhance the material, they also solved the issue of overflowing landfills. 

The optimal mixture was placed at one percent shredded face masks and 99 percent RCA. This mix, the team pointed out, delivered strength while keeping cohesion between the two materials. And when tested for stress, acid, and water resistance, as well as deformation and dynamic properties — the material met all civil engineering requirements. 

Single-Use Face Masks Recycled Into Road Materials
The blend mixed RCA (right) and shredded masks (left). Source: RMIT University

The study was only carried out on unused surgical face masks, so the team pointed out that further tests needed to be carried out to find ways of properly disinfecting and sterilizing used face masks before using them in the mix.

Professor Jie Li, who led the RMIT University research team, stated "If we can bring circular economy thinking to this massive waste problem, we can develop the smart and sustainable solutions we need."

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