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Super strong building materials of the future made with PPE?

Researcher Shannon Kilmartin-Lynch with the team’s concrete that was made using PPE. Credit: RMIT University

Engineers at RMIT University in Australia have found a way to use disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) to make concrete stronger. This represents a dual win: creating more sustainable building materials and tackling the mountain of waste generated during the pandemic.

The RMIT team is the first to investigate the feasibility of recycling three types of PPE – isolation gowns, face masks and rubber gloves – into concrete. All recycled materials showed promise, according to Dr Rajeev Roychand. He estimates around 55 000 tonnes of PPE have been generated in the last three years alone. Around 129 billion disposable face masks are used and discarded around the world every month.

Roychand and his team incorporated between 0.1% and 0.25% of the shredded recycled input. Despite this being a small percentage, tests yielded significant benefits for the concrete. The research found:

  • rubber gloves increased compressive strength by up to 22%  
  • isolation gowns increased resistance to bending stress by up to 21%, compressive strength by 15% and elasticity by 12%
  • face masks increased compressive strength by up to 17%

This means there is ‘real potential’ for construction industries around the world to play a significant role in transforming medical waste into a valuable resource, Roychand argues. ‘While our research is in the early stages, these promising initial findings are an important step towards the development of effective recycling systems to keep disposable PPE waste out of landfill,’ he notes.

Casafico Pty Ltd, an industry partner of RMIT University, plans to launch a field project inspired by the research. It will consider mixing different types of PPE to find the best possible recycled content composition.

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