Scientists construct new uses for billions of discarded masks 00:00

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Scientists construct new uses for billions of discarded masks

Littered face masks and other PPE are an emerging environmental crisis. Some researchers have found a way to repurpose masks in road-building materials but now they need industry to take note and use the technology.

Did You Know? Tap to expand
As of Feb. 2, 2021, masks are required on planes, buses, trains, and other public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the U.S. and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Cody Nelson: You’ve probably seen plenty of face masks littered in places they shouldn’t be. 

September 2020 clip from NBC News: Another side effect of the coronavirus — pollution. More people are relying on single-use plastics, things like masks, gloves and bottles of hand sanitizer, and they are ending up in the ocean.

Cody Nelson: But the problem is maybe worse than you thought.

Clip from April 2021 ABC News: Globally an estimated that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month, that’s about 3 million face masks a minute.

Cody Nelson: All the public health issues aside, a major question about lingering issues from the pandemic is, what do we do with all these trashed face masks? 

One potential solution is using them to help make roads. To find one of the scientists leading this charge, we need to go to Australia.

Mohammad Saberian Boroujeni: My name is Mohammad Saberian Boroujeni and I’m currently working as a postdoc research fellow at the discipline of civil engineering at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Dr. Mohammad Saberian Boroujeni from the School of Engineering at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo courtesy of RMIT University)

The current Covid-19 pandemic is responsible for creating too much rubbish. And this situation inspired us, or persuaded, us to look for a solution. So we looked at the feasibility of blending the face masks into construction materials.

In this specific research, what we did was, we blended the face mask with recycled concrete aggregate, which comes from the construction and demolition materials, and then we blended these two materials together at specific ratios and we conducted a few testings on the engineering side of the project to see if the face mask can be added to the recycled concrete aggregate for making new and sustainable roads. 

The masks are made of polypropylene plastic, which can bring more flexibility to the roads and concrete as well. So, what we did in the laboratory experiments was to see if the combination of the building rubble and the mask works for the pavement or road applications. And what we did is we shredded the face mask into strips of fibers with a length of two centimeter and widths of half a centimeter. Then we mixed them together and we conducted several testings on the mixture, and then we identified an optimal mixture.

Cody Nelson: The optimal mixture, they found, was 1 percent shredded face mask, 99 percent recycled concrete aggregate — or reused construction debris. That blend, Mohammad says, was strong enough to meet civil engineering standards for both base and sub-base layers of roads.

Now, the goal is getting this technology used in the real world. 

Shredded masks mixed with recycled concrete aggregate to make new and sustainable roads. (Photo courtesy of RMIT University)

Mohammad Saberian Boroujeni: We are currently applying for some government grants, and we were happy to find some industries who are interested in this project and this technology, and I hope we can get that grant and go ahead with this project. But we need more help from industries, in Australia or even overseas, to be on board and bring this technology to a real life project.

Many masks are generated around the world. And at the end of the day, most of them are either sent to landfills or incinerated. And we estimated that about 6.8 billion disposable face masks are being generated or being used globally each day. And this provides like, too many environmental issues if we don’t think about it, and we don’t find a solution for this kind of emerging environmental issue. We need to take an action right now. 

Cody Nelson:  This new road technology could be used anywhere and could keep nearly 103 tons of mask waste out of landfills.  For iPondr, I’m Cody Nelson.

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