Face masks are proving to be a deadly hazard for wildlife – from birds and sea creatures to land mammals. In Malaysia, macaques have been photographed chewing the strings off such masks, which could pose as a choking hazard.
In the UK, domestic dogs have swallowed discarded masks on their daily walks – My Family Vets has seen a rise in face mask ingestion cases in recent months.
Finding ways to repurpose these old masks is top of mind for some researchers. And at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, they’ve discovered disposable face masks could actually be recycled to make roads.
Their study found that using the recycled face mask material to make just one kilometre of a two-lane road would use around 3 million masks, preventing 93 tonnes of waste from going to landfill.
According to action group Waste Free Oceans, plastic masks – such as the blue surgical ones that have become commonly used – can take 450 years to decompose in nature. With millions being discarded every day, it’s crucial we find a way to reuse them.
Back to the study: the new road-making material is a mix of shredded single-use face masks and processed building rubble designed to meet civil engineering safety standards.
Analysis shows the face masks help to add stiffness and strength to the final product, designed to be used for base layers of roads and pavements.
Professor Jie Li, who leads the RMIT School of Engineering research team, said the team was inspired to look at the feasibility of blending face masks into construction materials after seeing so many discarded on the streets.
“We know even if these masks are disposed of properly, they will go to landfill or 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.”
Lead researcher Dr Mohammad Saberian said multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches are now needed to tackle the environmental impact of Covid-19, particularly the risks associated with the disposal of used PPE.
“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,” Dr Saberian said.
He hopes the research will open the door to future studies investigating whether other types of PPE – for example, rubber gloves – would also be suitable for recycling.