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Circular Economy

Innovative Process For Recycling Of Single-Use Face Masks

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the use of disposable face masks. Discarding them has become an environmental challenge on a global scale. Even post-pandemic, the healthcare industry will continue to generate tons of waste from single-use disposables.

This prompted the Fraunhofer Cluster of Excellence Circular Plastics Economy CCPE and the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT to develop an innovative recycling process for used plastics by implementing a pilot project with an objective to offer a sustainable option for the medical sector.

Dr. Hofmann, Fraunhofer teamed up with SABIC and project initiator Procter & Gamble (P&G) to demonstrate the feasibility of closed-loop recycling of single-use face masks.

Procter & Gamble collected used face masks worn by its employees and sent them over to the Institute. Pyrolysis was used to convert the masks to oil which thermochemically converted the masks at around 650 degrees Celsius in the absence of oxygen. This process produces -among other things - pyrolysis oil.

The benefit of this process is that the high temperatures will also destroy any biogenic material such as pathogens, residual pollutants, etc.

Subsequently, the recovered pyrolysis oil was sent to SABIC. The company used it as feedstock for its processes and produced polypropylene, another plastic that is needed to make masks.

The reason behind using this process is to neutralize hazardous medical waste. Masks not only feature polypropylene as a material but also contain nose wires or similar objects. Mechanical recycling would not have worked in this case.

The mass and energy balance of the approach is another advantage. The process allows to track how much oil is recovered from the masks. It amounted to nearly 50 percent, which means 50 percent of the old masks could be converted back into new masks.

Surgical masks were used in the project, however, FFP2 (KN95) masks can also be used. It can even apply to plastics - especially general plastic packaging.

The Institute plans to achieve a technology scale-up. It has a system that can convert at a rate of 70 kilograms per hour. Their goal is to develop these types of units on a larger scale.

They have already received inquiries and are in talks with several stakeholders in the healthcare system. Thatís because material contained in personal protective equipment is presently incinerated for safety reasons, contributing to both soaring CO2 emissions and increasing demand for raw material. This process not only avoids incineration but also creates a petroleum substitute thereby addressing existing industrial processes and generating a substitute for petroleum, meaning fossil fuels.

(Based on an Interview by MEDICA-tradefair.com with Dr Alexander Hofmann, Head of Department Recycling Management at Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT ).

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