Story in a nutshell Face masks with a “single usage” are thrown away and create serious environmental problems. The viability of recycling these plastic-rich goods into a variety of materials, including LEDs and cement additives, has been shown in numerous experiments. However, it is unclear to what extent private industries will adopt sustainable adjustments.
The massive amount of plastic medical waste produced by both health care providers and regular people as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic was one of its numerous side effects.
Researchers discovered in 2021 that of the 8 million tons of plastic garbage produced during the epidemic, China and the US were primarily responsible for the most of it ending up in the ocean.
More information indicated that over 1.5 billion face masks were projected to have entered the ocean in just 2020, harming both wildlife and marine ecosystems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now declared that cloth masks are less efficient at halting the spread of COVID-19 than disposable choices like N95 or KN95 respirators, contrary to the hopes of some environmentally conscious consumers.
These substitutes, however, are pricey and have a finite number of uses. Thus, less expensive but equally disposable options, such as polypropylene-based disposable masks, have proliferated.
The need for more effective disposal methods for these plastic-heavy items is also illustrated by images of these masks entangling wildlife, circling in waterways, and littering pavements.
Several businesses have taken the initiative to collect and recycle masks that are discarded at home on an individual basis. One Trenton, New Jersey-based company, TerraCycle, supplies Zero Waste Boxes to consumers who may then bring back a whole box of used personal protection equipment because masks cannot be recycled with conventional streams of plastic and metal (PPE).
However, the company is unable to collect PPE from hospitals, clinics, or medical facilities due to legal restrictions. Following 72 hours, TerraCycle separates the waste into its component parts and transfers it to a third party where nonwoven plastics are converted into plastic pellets and metals are transformed into bar stock or metal sheeting.
According to TerraCycle’s website, “the elastane or rubber band portion is ground into a fine mesh regrind and mixed with recycled plastics as an additive to provide flexibility and malleability to products,” whereas “the polypropylene-dominant mixture from the face mask is densified into a crumb-like raw material that’s used in plastic lumber and composite decking applications.”
Around the world, additional organizations run comparable systems.
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In addition to endangering animal life, masks are also difficult to decompose naturally and, if left lying around, eventually turn into microplastics, which present a new set of issues.
The masks may be burned, which would increase emissions and have a detrimental effect on people’s health, or they may take up limited landfill space and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition to individual recycling of used PPE, large-scale solutions can address the serious consequences of careless disposal and the significant amount of trash produced by the healthcare sector.
The industry as a whole has drawn criticism since it contributes roughly 8.5 percent of the nation’s total carbon emissions, according to the 2021 report’s authors, who also concluded that waste produced by hospitals “dwarfs the contribution from personal protection equipment.”
Scientists have stepped up to devise sustainable methods of upcycling worn PPE, particularly masks, in light of these statistics.
Australian researchers took on the problem of determining whether it was possible to turn masks into roads, and they discovered the product could be used to build two of the four layers that are generally utilized in building.
Another study, which was released in April 2022, utilized PPE debris, such as masks, and shown that the materials could be used to make white light emitting diodes (LEDs).
The effects of treated face mask chips in granular soil, which is frequently used in backfill, railways, and construction, have also been studied by scientists, and they have determined that it is an appropriate ingredient.
In order to create greener, more effective buildings and structures, a number of proof-of-concept studies have examined the use of discarded facemasks as concrete additives.
One of these papers was co-written by Xianming Shi, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University.
Shi and colleagues prepared face mask microfibers in lab tests using a new nanomaterial solution made of graphene oxide. Then, treated mask fibers of 0.1 vol% for a 0.4 water/cement ratio were added to cement paste.
Shi claims that the mixture actually helped the concrete when it was tested for sturdiness and strength.
The addition of the graphene oxide ingredient increased the concrete’s resistance to damage by 20%. According to Shi, regular cement used in a pier would last for 30 to 40 years in a normal coastal location like Seattle.
According to the results of the lab tests, however, adding the graphene oxide-treated microfibre would enhance the service life by 63 percent, bringing it to 55 years. This is mostly attributable to the therapy and mask microfibers’ synergistic interaction.
Masks would first need to be sterilized to destroy any bacteria or viruses if this procedure were to be applied on a broader scale, according to the authors. However, Shi noted that one advantage of this approach is that any heavy metals or pollutants in the masks would be “chemically locked up” in concrete.
Concrete makes an excellent host material. Nothing you put in won’t significantly drain out.
In addition, after water, concrete is the material that people utilize the most globally. Due to the need for infrastructure including roads, buildings, bridges, and other structures, each individual needs around 3 tons of concrete annually.
Despite the procedure being technically possible, Shi said that “how to encourage the private sector to invest in such technology is beyond our control.”
There may be some opportunities following the approval of President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which allocates $550 billion in new infrastructure financing. Increased action is especially requested by the IIJA to ensure “energy efficiency of paving material production and paving materials’ potential to improve the environment and promote sustainability.”
A component of concrete, cement is frequently used for paving and building roads. “The Act authorizes $304 billion to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) for roads and bridges over five years with approximately $100 billion in extra funding for roadways specifically,” according to an American Concrete Pavement Association (ACPA) analysis on the IIJA.
In the wake of the legislation’s passing, Changing America has contacted the ACPA to inquire about its plans to implement any long-term solutions on a national scale.
Shi believes that the law will motivate organizations to take action.
Without adequate financing, there is frequently a lot of neglected maintenance. Innovation is not possible, he remarked. The public and private sectors will undoubtedly be motivated to search for more long-term and sustainable solutions as a result of the increased investment, in my opinion.
Shi added that despite the fact that the procedure utilized in his team’s laboratory tests was novel, he does not intend to apply for a patent for it.
He claimed that by simply grinding down masks into microfiber, significant gains in cement tensile strength may be made even without the use of the novel nanomaterial.
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