Anew road-making material is a mix of shredded single-use face-masks and processed building rubble that meets civil engineering safety standards. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an estimated 6.8 billion disposable facemasks being used across the globe each day.

Analysis shows the facemasks help to add stiffness and strength to the final product, which is designed to be used for base layers of roads and pavements. Roads are made of four layers: subgrade, base, sub-base, and asphalt on top. All the layers must be both strong and flexible to withstand the pressures of heavy vehicles and prevent cracking. Processed building rubble — known as recycled concrete aggregate (RCA) — can potentially be used on its own for the three base layers.

The researchers found adding shredded facemasks to RCA enhances the material while simultaneously addressing environmental challenges on two fronts: PPE disposal and construction waste. Construction, renovation, and demolition account for about half the waste produced annually worldwide.

The researchers identified an optimal mixture of 1 percent shredded facemasks to 99 percent RCA that delivers on strength while maintaining good cohesion between the two materials. The mixture performs well when tested for stress, acid, and water resistance as well as strength, deformation, and dynamic properties, meeting all the relevant civil engineering specifications.

In related work, the researchers also investigated the use of shredded disposable facemasks as an aggregate material for making concrete, with promising preliminary findings.

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