Eco-Minded Engineers Want To Build Roads Out Of Used Face Masks
Over a year into the pandemic and used face masks still litter the world's streets, which made a group of researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, wonder: What if we could work PPE into our streets instead?
Engineering a second life for PPE.
Jie Li, Ph.D., an engineering professor at RMIT and leader of the study, estimates that around 6.88 billion disposable face masks are being produced daily around the world. These single-use masks are not recyclable (they can clog recycling machines and pose a health risk to the people who run them), meaning billions of masks are destined for the trash.
"Since they are mainly made of nonbiodegradable plastics, these single-use masks will take as long as 450 years to break down in the environment," Li tells mbg via email. "Therefore urgent action at every possible level is needed to address this serious environmental threat."
His team, which specializes in recycling and reusing waste materials for civil construction, set out to find a second-life application for PPE. They had a hunch that surgical masks could be repurposed into a sturdy but pliable road material. To form the base of a stretch of road, they combined masks with processed rubble from construction—another abundant waste product.
They found that a mix of 1% shredded face masks to 99% recycled building material would be strong enough to do the job. Even at this relatively low percentage, the material would use 3 million masks per kilometer (0.62 miles) of two-lane road. So if it was used to build all of, say, Highway 1—Australia's longest highway at 9,010 miles—it would spare at least 43 billion masks.
The road ahead for face masks.
While the Highway 1 PPE renovation is probably out of the picture, Li's team does think this lab-born material could have real-world applications. And since the masks are encased below a layer of asphalt pavement, they shouldn't pose a threat to local wildlife and ecosystems, though Li adds that they would still need to be thoroughly disinfected before use.
"Our team is now looking to partner with local governments or industry who are interested in collecting masks and building a road prototype," he says. In other parts of the world, artists and designers are upcycling PPE into plastic furniture and hospital mattresses, but this would be the material's first civil construction application.
PPE-clad roads would help keep some of this massive new waste stream out of the landfill for now, as well as reimagine COVID-19's legacy. In the future, this one relic of the virus could serve as solid ground.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.