Researchers recycle discarded face masks to make stronger road material

In addition to a global health crisis, the pandemic has also exacerbated our toxic relationship with plastic, with millions of single-use face masks and gloves ending up in the environment daily. There are some ways, however, we can mitigate this new form of pollution. 

Recently, we shared a story about a project in India that’s turning personal protective equipment (PPE) waste scraps into mattresses for those in need. Now, a research team in Australia has found another ingenious way to repurpose PPE waste: making roads out of it.

As part of their new study, the team from Australia’s RMIT University used shredded face masks in a road material they say offers some unique engineering advantages. The researchers combined the waste into what’s known as recycled concrete aggregate (RCA), which is essentially a building material made of recycled clean concrete waste designed for reuse.

After experimenting with different recipes for RCA that include various concentrations of shredded surgical masks, the team found that the ideal mixture was one percent shredded face mask to 99 percent RCA. Further tests also showed that the mask material improved the ductility and flexibility of the RCA blend.

“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,” says first author Dr. Mohammad Saberian.

According to the researchers, using the new material to build a 0.6-mile long two-lane road would use around three million masks and avoid 93 tons of waste going to landfill. And though the logistics around collecting the masks and turning them into road material presents another challenge entirely, the team hopes its study can inspire a shift in the way we look at the environmental impact of the pandemic.

“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,” said team lead Professor Jie Li.

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