New partnership tackles the growing problem of single-use face masks as litter
Sabic, Procter & Gamble Co, and Fraunhofer Institute Umsicht are working together on a new closed-loop recycling pilot project for the masks.
Material supplier Sabic, consumer products giant Procter & Gamble Co. (P&G), and Germany-based sustainable energy and raw materials management firm Fraunhofer Institute Umsicht are collaborating on a project that aims to help solve a growing problem: discarded single-use face masks that are winding up as litter.
Due to COVID-19, use of billions of disposable face masks is raising environmental concerns especially when they’re discarded in public spaces, including parks, open-air venues, and beaches. 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 disposal on landfill sites or in incineration plants represents a loss of valuable feedstock for new material.
Which is why the three partners are collaborating on a circular economy pilot project which aims to demonstrate the feasibility of closed-loop recycling of the face masks.
As part of the pilot, Cincinnati, Ohio-based P&G collected used face masks worn by employees or given to visitors at its manufacturing and research sites in Germany. Although those masks are always disposed of responsibly, there was no ideal route in place to recycle them efficiently. To help demonstrate a potential step change in this scenario, special collection bins were set up, and the collected used masks were sent to Fraunhofer for further processing in a dedicated research pyrolysis plant.
“A single-use medical product such as a face mask has high hygiene requirements, both in terms of disposal and production. Mechanical recycling would have not done the job,” said Dr. Alexander Hofmann, head of department recycling management at Fraunhofer Umsicht. “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’s possible to produce feedstock for new plastics in virgin quality that can also meet the requirements for medical products.”
The pyrolysis oil was then sent to Sabic to be used as feedstock for the production of new polypropylene (PP) resin. The resins were produced using the principle of mass balance to combine the alternative feedstock with fossil-based feedstock in the production process. “Mass balance is considered a crucial bridge between today’s large-scale linear economy plants and the more sustainable circular economy of the future, which today is operated on a smaller scale but expected to grow quickly,” Sabic said.
“The high-quality circular PP polymer obtained in this pilot demonstrates that closed-loop recycling is achievable through active collaboration of players from across the value chain,” said Mark Vester, Sabic’s global circular economy leader. “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.”
Finally, to close the loop, the PP polymer was supplied to P&G, where it was processed into non-woven fibres material. “This pilot project has helped us to assess if the closed-loop approach could work for hygienic and medical grade plastics.” said Hansjörg Reick, P&G senior director, open innovation. “Of course, further work is needed but the results so far have been very encouraging.”
The entire closed-loop pilot project from facemask collection to production was developed and implemented within only seven months. The transferability of advanced recycling to other feedstocks and chemical products is being further researched at Fraunhofer CCPE.