We Use 6 Billion Face Masks a Day—But Scientists Have a Genius Way to Turn Them Into Roads

A team of researchers in Melbourne, Australia, have discovered that adding millions of discarded face masks to road-paving mixtures lowered the environmental impact of the masks, and the cost of the road.

Just one kilometer of road would need three million masks, and the polypropylene plastic used to make single-use surgical face masks actually increased the flexibility and durability of the road.

Almost immediately, the idea of seven billion people going through a few masks a week as the pandemic got rolling started ringing alarm bells, and most people at this point will have noticed the dearth of discarded masks on roadsides and in garbage cans.

“If historical data is a reliable indicator, it can be expected that around 75 percent of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas,” writes a July report from the United Nations.

RMIT University scientists published a paper in the journal Science of the Total Environment positing a quite brilliant solution to the mask problem.

Jie Li and the team developed a new composite road-building material that is a mixture of about 2% shredded masks, with recycled concrete aggregate (RCA)—a material derived from waste concrete and other minerals from demolished buildings.

This ultra-recycled material was found in the study to be ideal for two of the four layers generally used to create roadways. Furthermore, paving merely a kilometer of two-way road with the RCA would require three million face masks, resulting in a rerouting of 93 tons of waste from landfills.

Plastic roads

The roads actually gained greater flexibility as well, since the polypropylene helped reinforce the bindings of rubble particles, as well as giving a bit of stretch to the particle aggregates.

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The final product then is more resistant to wear than normal asphalt, as well as being cheaper too, provided there was a method for collecting masks.

Li and his team did a cost-analysis and found that, at $26 per ton, the RCA was about half the cost of mining virgin materials from quarries, and as much as a third of the cost of shipping the used masks to a landfill.

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The scaling up would be ideal for large infrastructure projects. For example Washington, a notably progressive state, has the 11th worst roads in terms of unaddressed repairs in the U.S.

If the percentage of damaged roads in Washington state were repaired with Li’s RCA/mask mixture, it would take nearly 10 billion masks, sparing American landfills hundreds of millions of tons of masks.

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According to Fast Company, Li and his team are looking for private industry partners or governments willing to give their plastic mask road an opportunity for a large-scale test.

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