Australian researchers have shown how disposable face masks could be recycled to make roads, in a circular economy solution to pandemic-generated waste.
Their study shows that using the recycled face mask material to make just 1km of a two-lane road would use up about three million masks, preventing 93 tonnes of waste from going to landfill.
The new road-making material developed by RMIT University researchers – a mix of shredded single-use face masks and processed building rubble – meets 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.
The study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment is the first to investigate potential civil construction applications of disposable surgical face masks.
Author Dr Mohammad Saberian said multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches were 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,” he said.
In related work, the RMIT researchers have also investigated the use of shredded disposable face masks as an aggregate material for making concrete, with promising preliminary findings.
Professor Jie Li leads the RMIT School of Engineering research team, which focuses on recycling and reusing waste materials for civil construction.
He said the team was inspired to look at the feasibility of blending face masks into construction materials after seeing so many discarded masks littering their local streets.
“We know that even if these masks are disposed of properly, they will go to landfill or they’ll be incinerated,” he said.
Other research has investigated effective methods for disinfecting and sterilising used masks. A comprehensive review of disinfection technologies found 99.9 per cent of viruses could be killed with the simple “microwave method”, where masks are sprayed with an antiseptic solution then microwaved for one minute.