Because of COVID-19, billions of disposable facemasks are used. This raises environmental concerns, especially when they are discarded in public spaces. Fraunhofer Institute UMSICHT, P&G, and SABIC have investigated how used facemasks could be returned into the value chain of new facemask production. They collaborated in a circular economy pilot project which aimed to demonstrate the feasibility of closed-loop recycling of single-use facemasks.
P&G collected used facemasks at its manufacturing and research sites in Germany. Special collection bins were set up and the collected used masks were sent to Fraunhofer for further processing in a special research pyrolysis plant.
There, the masks were first automatically shredded and then thermochemically converted into pyrolysis oil. During pyrolysis, the plastic is broken down into molecular fragments under pressure and heat, which also destroys any residual contaminants or pathogens, such as the Coronavirus. In this way, it is possible to produce feedstock for new plastics in virgin quality that can also meet the requirements for medical products.
The pyrolysis oil was used by SABIC as a feedstock for the production of new 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 operates on a smaller scale today but is expected to grow quickly. To close the loop, the PP polymer was processed by P&G into non-woven fibers material.
Further work is needed, but the results so far are very encouraging, the collaboration partners say. The entire closed-loop pilot project from facemask collection to production was developed and implemented within only seven months. The transferability of this advanced recycling to other feedstocks and chemical products is being further researched at Fraunhofer Cluster Circular Plastics Economy CCPE.
- Fraunhofer Cluster Circular Plastics Economy CCPE, Oberhausen, Germany
- Fraunhofer Institute UMSICHT, Oberhausen, Germany
- Procter & Gamble (P&G), Cincinnati, OH, United States
- Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia