Researchers in Australia have developed a new recycled material for building roads out of shredded face masks. The road-making material is feasible and meets civil engineering safety standards, making it ideal for mitigating the growing environmental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic is not only a health crisis but can also be an environmental one. Just as more and more cities were banning single-use plastics, the pandemic forcefully brought them back to stave off potential contamination issues arising from reusable cutlery, bottles, and plates.
Then there’s the issue of single-use face masks, with an estimated 6.8 billion masks being used across the globe every single day.
Rather than ending up in landfills or the oceans where they may harm marine life, researchers at RMIT University in Australia figured out how to recycle the masks for an engineering application with real-world use.
The researchers put their recycled road-making material — a mix of shredded single-use face masks and processed rubble — through a barrage of tests. This analysis showed that the plastic particles help to add stiffness and strength to the final product when used in the base layer for roads and pavements. Besides the base, every road is made of three other layers: subgrade, sub-base, and asphalt on top.
According to the researchers, one kilometer of a two-lane road would use up about 3 million masks, thereby preventing 93 tonnes of waste from going to landfills.
What makes this solution particularly appealing is the fact that it solves two waste problems, simultaneously addressing personal protection equipment (PPE) waste and construction waste. The mix used by RMIT is 1% shredded face masks to 99% recycled concrete aggregate (RCA).
The RMIT team led by Professor Jie Lie also explored the use of shredded disposable face masks as an aggregate material for making concrete, with promising preliminary results so far.
“We know that even if these masks are disposed of properly, they will go to landfill or they’ll be incinerated,” Lie 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 findings were reported in the journal Science of the Total Environment.