Disposable PPE waste finds new life as concrete

In a major boost for dental sustainability, engineers at RMIT University in Melbourne have developed a way of turning three key types of disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) – isolation gowns, face masks and rubber gloves – into reinforcement materials in structural concrete.

Published in the journals Case Studies in Construction Materials, Science of the Total Environment and Journal of Cleaner Production, the studies by RMIT School of Engineering (RMIT SoE) researchers found that “shredded PPE could increase the strength of concrete by up to 22% and improve resistance to cracking.”

The plan is for RMIT SoE to work with their industry partner Casafico Pty Ltd to fold the research findings into a field project which first author, PhD researcher Shannon Kilmartin-Lynch, says brings “a circular economy approach to the challenge of dealing with healthcare waste.”

The project has the potential to make a considerable difference in the treatment of PPE waste which, since the start of the COVID pandemic has been increasing at a rate of 54,000 tonnes a day, with approximately 129 billion disposable face masks are used and discarded around the world every month.

“We urgently need smart solutions for the ever-growing pile of COVID-19 generated waste – this challenge will remain even after the pandemic is over,” said Kilmartin-Lynch, a Vice-Chancellor’s Indigenous Pre-Doctoral Fellow at RMIT.

Joint lead author, Dr Rajeev Roychand, said there was real potential for construction industries around the world to play a significant role in transforming this waste into a valuable resource.

“While our research is in the early stages, these promising initial findings are an important step towards the development of effective recycling systems to keep disposable PPE waste out of landfill,” he said.

The next step for the research is to evaluate the potential for mixing the PPE streams, develop practical implementation strategies and work towards field trials.

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