The use of surgical masks is already part of our daily lives. But, the daily use (and disposal) of them as a consequence of the global pandemic has caused a significant contamination problem. However, a research team from the University of Bristol in England may have found the solution. The idea behind the initiative is to collect defective or unusable surgical masks before recycling them and transforming them into 3D printing material, specifically filaments. The project aims to mitigate the impact of disused PPE on the environment, while developing filaments for AM.
According to National Geographic, about 129 billion masks are used per month or about 3.4 billion masks or face shields are thrown away every day. This figure is shocking because the vast majority ends up in the sea, on the street or in the countryside, generating more pollution due to its plastic components. In fact, according to the Environmental Advances study, a single mask can release up to 173,000 microfibers into the sea per day. Like other everyday objects, masks contain plastic fibers like polypropylene that remain in the environment for decades before eventually degrading. To solve this problem, the team at the University of Bristol has studied the possibility of transforming the components of these masks into 3D printing material.
Transforming masks into 3D printing materials
In early tests, the team collected a number of faulty masks that had their ear flaps and nose wire removed. The masks are then heated and pressed with an iron and release paper to make them into hard sheets. These, in turn, were ground into fine polypropylene granules from which the masks are made. Finally, the blue granules are passed through a drawing machine that turns them into the manufacturing filament. As the initial masks had gone through a series of high-temperature processes, the researchers felt that this was enough to disinfect them and kill any bacteria or viruses on them.
To source the right filament for a 3D printer, the team turned to Filastruder, an open source product specifically designed by the maker community to recycle printed plastic waste into 3D printing filament. Once they managed to develop the filament, the researchers set themselves new challenges in the field. Among them is the possibility of processing mixed materials by treating the mask with the handles in the same process. They are also investigating large-scale process automation to foster the circular economy and oversee the distribution, collection and recycling of medical equipment. Even so, it remains to be seen how this innovative idea that arises with the aim of avoiding environmental contamination from masks evolves. In the meantime, you can find more information on the university website HERE.
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*All photo credits: University of Bristol