When you’re done wearing that face mask, where does it go?
The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) skyrocketed near the beginning of the pandemic. Disposable face masks, in particular, saw significant usage rates. Over 4 trillion disposable masks were used in 2020 alone. And yet, where do these disposable masks end up? The answer: landfills, with some estimates suggesting that disposal PPE like face masks contributed up to 8 million tons of additional waste. This is particularly troublesome because many disposable masks contain plastics that are hard to break down. In all, face masks pose a significant environmental threat, and may still for years to come. The question is, what can we do about it?
A team of researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) School of Engineering have published three studies that explore how disposable PPE could be reused in a productive way: reinforcing concrete to make it stronger. The studies are published in Case Studies in Construction Materials, Science of the Total Environment, and Journal of Cleaner Production.
Specifically, the researchers looked at three types of PPE in each separate study: isolation gowns, disposable face masks, and rubber gloves. The idea of using PPE was driven by a circular economic approach, which focused on maximizing the value of PPE. So, rather than ending up in a landfill, the goal is to find another way to get more value out of PPE beyond one-and-done usage.
In all, researchers found that, when shredded, PPE could be incorporated into concrete and improve its overall strength by as much as 22%. Working with Casafico Pty Ltd, researchers plan to test these findings in the actual field.
More specifically, researchers concluded the following from their studies:
Shredded rubber gloves improved the compressive strength of concrete by around 22%
Shredded isolation gowns improved the following in concrete:
Shredded face masks improved compressive strength about 17%.