The impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic reach into almost every conceivable aspect of life. That includes our littering habits. Mask mandates around the globe have meant that the consumption of disposable face coverings has soared, and with it, the pollution caused by those same coverings being discarded in the environment after use.
Apart from the challenge of dealing with such huge volumes of essential personal healthcare 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 and Procter & Gamble have now announced that they are collaborating on a project that will pilot a closed-loop recycling solution to address the problem.
“Recognising the challenge, we set out to explore how used face masks could potentially be returned into the value chain of new face mask production”, said Dr. Peter Dziezok, Director R&D Open Innovation at P&G. “But creating a true circular solution from both a sustainable and an economically feasible perspective takes partners.”
The three partners to this project have come together from across the value chain. Each of the partners had a specific role to play. The pilot used the 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 Dr. Alexander Hofmann, Head of Department Recycling Management at Fraunhofer Umsicht - and Head of Research Department “Advanced Recycling” at Fraunhofer CCPE.
“In our solution, therefore, the masks were first automatically shredded and then thermochemically converted to pyrolysis oil. Pyrolysis breaks the plastic down into molecular fragments under pressure and heat, which will also destroy any residual pollutants or pathogens, such as the Coronavirus. In this way it is possible to produce feedstock for new plastics in virgin quality that can also meet the requirements for medical products," Hofmann explained.
The pyrolysis oil was delivered to Sabic to be used as feedstock for the production of new PP resin, in accordance with the mass balance approach. “The circular material is part of our Trucircle portfolio, aimed at preventing valuable used plastic from becoming waste and at mitigating the depletion of fossil resources,” said Mark Vester, Global Circular Economy Leader at Sabic
Finally, to close the loop, the PP polymer was supplied to P&G, where it was processed into non-woven fibre material.
“This pilot project has helped us to assess if the close loop approach could work for hygienic and medical-grade plastics," said Hansjörg Reick, P&G Senior Director Open Innovation. He conceded that further work was obviously needed, but noted that ‘the results so far have been very encouraging’.
The entire project, from face mask collection to production, took a mere seven months to develop and implement. The transferability of advanced recycling to other feedstocks and chemical products is being further researched at Fraunhofer CCPE.