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 one kilometre of a two-lane road would use up about 3 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.
The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) has increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an estimated 6.8 billion disposable face masks being used across the globe each day.
First author Dr Mohammad Saberian said multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches were 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,” Saberian said.
“We hope this opens the door for further research, to work through ways of managing health and safety risks at scale and investigate whether other types of PPE would also be suitable for recycling.”