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Getting masks off the streets and into the recycling hub

Next time you’re about to toss your unwanted face mask onto the street, think better of it. One mask may not make a difference – but they soon add up. Our oceans will be flooded with an estimated 1.5 billion masks during 2020. But innovators around the world are demonstrating that there may be a silver lining.

Discarded masks are likely to result in another 6 000 tonnes of marine litter. They may be thin and inconsequential but they will take around 450 years to fully degrade. This warning comes from the Hong Kong-based marine conservation organisation OceansAsia.

It’s not a statement to be taken lightly. As well as there being a cure for laziness (giving yourself a firm kick in the back-side), we’re not talking about regular, harmless plastic scrap. Until you get tested, you can never really be sure if you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or not. Throwing out a used mask can be dangerous.

So we’re talking about medical waste. A waste stream (worth approximately EUR 6 billion and forecast to reach EUR 9 billion by 2025) that is typically generated at hospitals with their strictly regulated waste management services.

India: bricks and roads

Granted, single-use masks aren’t easy to recycle as they are made from a variety of melt blown plastics and many recyclers don’t know how to handle them. That doesn’t mean turning them into something useful is impossible.

One hopeful example is Binish Desai, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from India who is transforming the discarded personal protection gear into bricks. So far, he has created 40 000 recycled bricks for schools and office buildings and is currently scaling up his activities to produce 15 000 a day.

Desai teamed up with hospitals and clinics in the state of Gujarat to collect the waste and installed collection bins at restaurants and apartment buildings. An exciting aspect is that Desai’s method may also yield new recycled material for road construction.

How does his process work? First, the scrap is isolated for three days. Then it is sanitised, shredded and sanitised again. Afterwards, it is mixed with 47% paper sludge and a binding agent and pressed by hand into various brick moulds.

South Korea: furniture

Another eco-friendly application for masks is to turn them into stools, says 23-year-old student Kim Ha-Neul. He set up a collection bin at Kaywon University of Art and Design with great success; over 10 000 masks were collected in a matter of weeks.

A Seoul-based manufacturer heard of the initiative and donated a tonne of defective ones.
To lessen the risk of coronavirus transmission, Kim keeps the masks in storage for at least four days. After removing elastic bands and wires, he wields a heat gun over the masks in a mould, melting them down at temperatures of over 300 degrees Celsius.

The result is a range of plastic stools in white, black, blue and pink or multi-colour, which Kim proudly used as his graduation piece. Next, he hopes to create a line of chairs, tables and light fixtures.

Japan: cotton candy tech

The 3D-printing trend may also hold part of the answer. Recently, Mahesh Bandi, a graduate from Okinawa Institute of Science’s physics programme, discovered an inexpensive way to produce masks using a technique called the ‘centrifugal spinning method’. And, yes, he was inspired by something we recall fondly from our childhood, the cotton candy machine.

Basically, Bandi puts crushed plastic scrap – mostly PET bottles and shopping bags – into a centrifuge machine that heats and flattens the plastic between two glass panes. The material is then placed on an air ioniser for about ten minutes. This creates a filter that can effectively ward off airborne virus particles.

The filter can be layered inside a surgical mask that’s produced by a 3D printer. Bandi believes his mask mask is more effective than the original N95 because it is positioned closer to the wearer’s face.

Las Vegas: tough composites

US firm TerraCyle has launched a pilot project in partnership with the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas to collect masks on-site. They are sorting according to colour and material and shredded into crumb-like flakes. The output fractions can serve the manufacture of rugged products such as railway sleepers, lumber for shipping pallets and decking.

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