Used facemasks could be recycled to make roads

Researchers at RMIT University have been researching methods of dealing with the mounds of discarded facemasks being generated during the pandemic. Researchers at the University have shown methods for recycling discarded facemasks to make roads in what they call a circular economy solution to waste generated during the pandemic. Using recycled facemask material to make one kilometer of a two-lane road could use up to 3 million masks and prevent 93 tons of waste from going to a landfill.The material used to make the roads is a mix of shredded single-use facemasks and processed building rubble. The material does meet civil engineering safety standards. According to the researchers, their analysis has shown that the facemasks help add stiffness and strength to the final product, designed to be used for base layers of roads and pavements. The new study is the first to investigate potential civil construction applications for disposable surgical facemasks.

Finding something to do with facemasks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) waste generated during the pandemic is a serious concern. An estimated 6.8 billion disposable facemasks are used around the globe each day. The study looked at the environmental impact and risks associated with the disposal of used PPE.

According to study first author Dr. Mohammed Saberian, the initial study looked at the feasibility of recycling single-use facemasks in roads. The team found that not only does the recycling work but delivers real engineering benefits. Currently, the team is investigating if other types of PPE could be recycled via the same method.

The team says roads are made of four layers with subgrade, base, sub-base, and asphalt on top. Processed building rubble known as recycled concrete aggregate can potentially be used on its own for the first three base layers. Researchers found that adding shredded facemasks to the recycled concrete aggregate enhances the material while addressing the environmental challenges of PPE disposal and construction waste. The optimal mixture is one percent shredded facemasks to 99 percent recycled concrete aggregate delivering good cohesion and strength between the materials.