Stories

Science in Action: Alternatives to Reduce Plastic Waste Originated from the Pandemic

written by Delfina Jaureguialzo

Have you run into a face mask idly lying on the street lately? Maybe the sad piece of dirty light blue fabric by the storm drain didn’t catch your attention, but the fact is that these materials are contaminating our planet and we should do something about it.

In the past two years, there has been an increase in the use of personal protective equipment. Since the pandemic, it is estimated that 129 billion masks are discarded monthly worldwide, which is equivalent to 3 million per minute. As a logical consequence, the exponentially greater volume of waste is something that we must deal with as soon as possible.

Single-use face masks are made of plastic fibers, essentially propylene, which then breaks down into smaller particles. As a result, each mask can generate up to 173,000 non-degradable microfibers, and according to experts, the main problem is that they are ultimately absorbed by land and water. Even a recent WHO report warns that if we don’t take concrete measures in this regard, a high percentage of this extra plastic will raise contamination rates to their highest peak.

But not everything is bad news. Scientists around the world are looking for ways to use these materials in different ways that could help lower the impact of discarded waste. 

For example, the Road Research Center of La Plata City (LEMaC) in Argentina has been working on a project to test whether the plastic excess from worn-out face masks could be used to extend the life of pavement. Since one of its components is vlieseline, a non-woven interfacing fabric, they expect it could provide greater durability to road asphalt.

Road floors are made of at least four layers that provide a uniform and stable support for traffic impacts through time. Scientists at LEMaC believe that the commercial components of pavement, such as cement, lime, and sand, can be replaced with face-mask plastic waste. 

During their investigation, the analyzed resources were incorporated into three types of soil, and at the laboratory stage, they managed to achieve positive results, with increases in structural contribution of up to 100%. They estimate that a typical block could easily receive 1,500,000 masks.

Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, are conducting a similar study to find alternatives to traditional techniques for road construction. They have developed a material that combines single-use personal protective equipment with recycled concrete. This discovery has the potential to mitigate the environmental impacts of COVID-19, and it could also make roads stronger. 

A large portion of the face masks that we observe today as waste in streets, fields, and watercourses, will become microplastics that human beings will eventually consume, with potentially negative consequences for our health. The prime benefit of this kind of research is that it could potentially solve this serious environmental liability that will become more dangerous in the years to come. That is to say, science, creativity, and wit can come together to create solutions for everyday issues and find a way to fight this critical threat to the environment and help preserve the future of our life on this planet.