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Saturday, November 26, 2022
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UW-Madison research group seeks to 'transform' how we recycle face masks

The University of Wisconsin-Madison community has probably never noticed the TerraCycle Disposable Masks branded “Zero Waste Boxes” placed on campus for proper disposal of face masks. This is likely because these boxes could only be found in one place —

The lobby of Engineering Hall. 

“TerraCycle uses a process called downcycling where they take the masks and they’ll make things like asphalt, plastic traffic cones or some lower grade material from the face mask,” UW-Madison Professor and Director of Chemical Upcycling of Waste Plastics, George Huber said. “So, the plastic doesn’t go back to the original face mask, but they down cycle them to lower quality materials.

Each TerraCycle box includes signage, a built-in liner, shipping and, finally, processing of the recycled masks after the box is filled completely. Each Zero Waste Box retails for upwards of $86.

Huber believes that there’s a better way. 

A team of researchers at the UW-Madison developed a process that recycles disposable masks into new plastic goods — not just lesser materials. Given the increased use of disposable masks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, practices on how to properly dispose of them — such as the research at UW-Madison — have emerged amid concerns about them ending up in landfills or littered, and negatively affecting the environment. 

This new recycling approach, a solvent-targeted recovery and precipitation (STRAP) process, began under the direction of Huber. Huber noted that the university is “a global leader in plastic recycling.”

“We're working with more than 17 different companies and the whole plastic value chain from plastic manufacturers, to plastic processors, to brand owners, to develop innovative technology,” emphasized Huber. 

The process utilizes disposable masks and other plastics, grinds them into a fine powder and pulls out the polypropylene in order to create new plastic goods. 

While the process has been established, the research is not yet available for widespread use. Moving from a small scale process to a larger, commercial one is a goal for the near future, Huber said.

The study began 18 months ago, and the focus has since evolved with the addition of postdoctoral researcher Dr. Jiuling Yu to the group. Originally focusing on multilayer plastic film, the research shifted due to the surge in production, use and disposal of face masks, said Yu. 

After learning about the TerraCycle Zero Waste Box located on campus, Huber explained the STRAP technology to the UW-Madison College of Engineering Director of Safety, Jesse Decker, the individual who purchased the mask collection box for Engineering Hall.

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Huber asked if he and his team could use the masks to continue their research in the mask division instead of returning the masks back to TerraCycle. Decker agreed, and the mask division of the research project began its work. 

However, the box was removed shortly after Huber acquired the masks for the STRAP project for reasons relating to cost and lack of use. 

With this unfortunate turn of events, Huber described frustrations with the cost of recycling. 

“We shouldn't have to pay money to recycle our stuff. There should be more economical ways to do this,” Huber emphasized. “I think with the technology we're developing, potentially in the future we could actually start paying people to give us their used face masks and make other products from them.”

Associated Students of Madison Sustainability Chair Ashley Cheung had similar views regarding proper disposal of masks around campus. 

“If we were to put mask collection boxes in campus buildings similar to how we have recycling, they would have to be as common as trash and recycling cans are, otherwise people would not naturally think to use them,” Cheung said. 

Both Huber and Cheung added that it is not financially feasible to place and maintain the boxes on campus. 

Huber, Cheung and Yu all agree that educating people around campus and in the greater Madison community about the importance and ease of recycling masks and other plastics is needed to see change. 

“If regular people aren't taught how to use categorical waste disposal systems, environmentally-friendly disposal will not happen,” Cheung said about the university specifically. “It is up to the university to decide (to educate) its community members on environmentally-friendly mask disposal.” 

Yu highlighted the importance of potential outreach methods to promote proper mask disposal. 

“[Creating] simple flow charts that could be used to express which parts of popular and common plastic waste can be recycled so you know which ones you can dispose of,” Yu emphasized. 

In addition to this, Huber expressed the importance of avoiding false information when discussing education about recycling practices, noting that proper education was “super” important.

Although the research is still operating at a smaller-scale, Huber and the research team is looking to expand in the near future. 

“Our group is collaborating with another group in Michigan Technological University to develop a pilot-scale STRAP system,” Yu said. “Once it finishes, it could be applied on many types of plastic wastes.” 

Ultimately, the goal, according to Huber, is to have the project completely operational by the end of the year.

“[It] will allow us to transform the plastic industry and make it more sustainable,” Huber said. 

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