The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic reach into almost every conceivable aspect of life. That includes litter being found around the globe.
Mask mandates have meant that the consumption of disposable face coverings has soared, and with it, the pollution caused by those same coverings being discarded improperly in the environment after use.
Apart from the challenge of dealing with such huge volumes of essential personal health care items in a sustainable way, simply throwing the used masks away for landfill disposal or incineration represents a loss of valuable feedstock for new material.
Fraunhofer Institute Umsicht, Sabic Innovative Polymers and consumer products giant Procter & Gamble Co. are collaborating on a project that will pilot a closed-loop recycling solution for single-use masks.
“Recognizing the challenge, we set out to explore how used face masks could potentially be returned into the value chain of new face mask production,” Peter Dziezok, director of R&D open innovation at Cincinnati-based P&G, said. “But creating a true circular solution from both a sustainable and an economically feasible perspective takes partners.”
The three partners came together from across the value chain. Each has a specific role to play. The pilot used disposable face masks collected by P&G that were worn by employees or given to visitors at the company’s manufacturing and research sites in Germany. Special collection bins were set up to dispose of the masks, which were then sent to Fraunhofer for further processing in a dedicated research pyrolysis plant.
Mechanical recycling would have not done the job, said Alexander Hofmann, head of the department of recycling management at Fraunhofer Umsicht and head of research for advanced recycling at Fraunhofer CCPE.