The disposal of pandemic-generated waste has become a huge management headache for governments around the world. Face masks and protective pieces of equipment are disposed of after every use and are mostly made of non-biodegradable materials. Now researchers in Melbourne, Australia have carried out studies that show that single-use face masks could be recycled and made into road-building material.
Researchers at the RMIT University demonstrated that around 3M disposable face masks could be used up to make a 2-kilometer, two-lane road. This will prevent 98 tons of waste from being dumped in landfills.
The study was published in ‘Science of the Total Environment,’ a journal of the university, and was motivated by reports from around the world of unmanageable levels of disposable masks ending up in the dumps in towns and cities.
The Vital Medical Gear Is A Major Source Of Pollution
It has created an enormous amount of waste, with estimates of 6.88B face masks being used and discarded each day. They usually end up in landfills or are incinerated for safety reasons, and also because no alternative use has been found for them.
Both these methods of disposal are hazardous for the environment. The face masks that are dumped in landfills do not decompose and cause leaching that poisons the surrounding groundwater. Incinerating them creates toxic gases.
The light face masks also end up in water bodies and ultimately the oceans where the levels of plastic materials are already at unmanageable levels. Ocean plastics are poisoning marine life and ending up in our bodies in the form of microplastics.
The researchers looked for ways to dispose of the face masks safely. They experimented with adding shredded masks to RCA, (recycled concrete aggregate), which is processed rubble from buildings that are used for road building.
The Addition Of Face Masks In The Right Ratio Could Create Road Materials
Researchers at RMIT University say that construction, demolition, and renovation, add an estimated 3.15M tons of these materials to stockpiles every year. Adding face masks at a 1% ratio to RCA was discovered to be an ideal mix that both delivered strength and maintained cohesion among the mixed materials. Going beyond 2% affected the stiffness and strength of the material.
The material passed the required tests for acid, water resistance, and stress. Tests for deformation, dynamic properties, and strength were also conducted, and the mixture met all the required specifications of civil engineering.
Roads normally consist of four layers starting from the bottom – sub-grade, the base, the sub-base, and finally asphalt at the top. RCA can be used in the first three layers. Thus, when mixed with the shredded masks, could be a viable solution to diverse waste issues and help turn it into a 100% recycled material.
Though the research so far has been limited to fresh face masks, further research is planned for disposable face masks. The immediate objective is to look for a good technique for sterilization of a huge quantity of face masks.
Dr. Mohamad Saberian, the lead author of the study, said he intends to work together with researchers and also industries that are involved in disinfecting masks. They can ultimately be used in various other engineering applications.
Various methods, including the ‘microwave method’ and the ‘thermal method’, are presently used for sterilizing face masks. They can destroy up to 99.9% of the virus present in the disposed face masks.
The use of disposed face masks could help create a circular economy. Dr. Saberian said that his team would be interested in collaborating with industries and governments to help build a prototype of the road, based on the RCA and face mask mix. He said that the roads could be dug up, and the material reused once they reached the average lifespan of 20 years.