In a breakthrough study, researchers at the RMIT University have developed a sustainable way to dispose of face masks by recycling them to make roads. The new material is a mix of shredded single-use face masks and processed building rubble and is designed to be used for base layers of roads and pavements.
The study shows that the use of recycled face mask material for 1 km of a two-lane road would require approximately 3 million masks, offsetting 93 tonnes of waste from going to landfill.
The addition of the face masks to processed building rubble, known as recycled concrete aggregate (RCA), provides stiffness and strength to the final product.
The basic concept behind the research is that roads are made up of four layers, and these layers must be strong and flexible enough to withstand the weight of heavy vehicles passing over them. While RCA can be used on its own for the three base layers, the addition of shredded face masks to it enhances the material to provide real engineering benefits.
The developed mixture shows good results when tested for stress, acid, and water resistance, as well as strength, deformation, and dynamic properties, meeting all the relevant civil engineering specifications.
This development comes at a time when the world is not only fighting a pandemic but also facing a challenge in the disposal of face masks and other such personal protective equipment (PPE). With 6.8 billion disposable face masks being used every day, it has become a major concern to find a sustainable solution for dealing with such waste.
Though the experiment was conducted using a small number of unused surgical face masks, another research has found effective methods for disinfecting and sterilizing used masks.
In a related research, the use of shredded disposable face masks as an aggregate material for making concrete has shown promising preliminary findings.