Surgical masks are being used in virtually all countries of the world as the first line of defense against COVID-19. Shortly after the pandemic started, the demand for disposable masks skyrocketed to unprecedented levels; by June 2020, China alone was producing about 200 million masks per day! But the enormous amount of bulk waste constituted by these masks—coupled with staff shortages in waste management systems due to the pandemic—greatly exacerbated the threat that these plastic products pose to both human health and the environment.
Can discarded masks be turned into something useful to keep them away from incinerators, landfill, and our soils and oceans? The answer is a definite yes, as demonstrated by a team of researchers in a recent study published in Bioresource Technology (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biortech.2021.126582), who analyzed the possibility of converting surgical masks into value-added chemicals through a thermal decomposition process called ‘pyrolysis.’ This international team of scientists was led by Professor Yong Sik Ok and Dr. Xiangzhou Yuan of Korea University, South Korea, who received great support from Professor Xun Hu of the University of Jinan and Professor Xiaonan Wang of the National University of Singapore and Tsinghua University.
While the pyrolysis of polypropylene—the main component of surgical masks—has already been studied in detail, masks usually contain other fillers that could affect their pyrolysis behavior. Thus, the research team had to carefully analyze how the pyrolysis conditions affected the obtained products, which came in gaseous, liquid, and solid forms. To this end, they ran multiple experiments at different pyrolysis temperatures and with different heating rates, capturing all the outputs and subjecting them to thorough characterization.
In particular, one set of pyrolysis conditions yielded a carbon-rich and oxygen-deficient liquid oil as the main product. Further analyses revealed that this oil had a high heating value of 43.5 MJ/kg, which is only slightly lower than that of diesel fuel and gasoline. In other words, the results showed that surgical masks can be converted into a burnable fuel that can in turn be used, for example, to generate electricity.
The story does not end there, however, being able to convert waste into something useful doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. It is important to first assess the combined environmental impact of all the processes involved and compare it with that of current practices before thinking of implementing them. Therefore, the researchers conducted a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of their proposed methodology to better understand its pros and cons. The LCA is an approach that is widely to quantify the environmental impacts associated with the entire life cycle of a product; in this case, the discarded masks marked the beginning of the cycle while the electricity generated using the obtained fuel marked its end.
The results of the LCA were promising, indicating that the conversion of waste masks into electricity through pyrolysis offered better performance than most conventional waste management approaches on several fronts, including less CO2 emissions, less terrestrial ecotoxicity, and less phosphorous emissions. “We verified that upcycling post-consumer surgical masks into value-added energy products represents a sustainable and promising route with notable environmental benefits,” highlights Dr. Yuan.
Overall, the findings of this study indicate that pyrolysis is an attractive option to solve the problems posed by discarded surgical waste masks, paving the way to sustainable waste management, while generating energy and reducing our environmental impact. “Understanding new ways to turn surgical masks into value-added energy products will help us mitigate plastic pollution and achieve sustainable waste-to-energy conversion in the future,” concludes Prof. Ok, “The novel upcycling route proposed in our study could help us protect Earth’s ecosystems and reach several of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals.”
Let us hope this idea is further tested and ultimately implemented so that we can reduce our burden on the environment.
Authors: Chao Li (1) Xiangzhou Yuan (2,3), Ziying Sun (4), Manu Suvarna (4), Xun Hu (1), Xiaonan Wang (4,5), Yong Sik Ok (2,6).
- School of Material Science and Engineering, University of Jinan
- Korea Biochar Research Center, APRU Sustainable Waste Management Program & Division of Environmental Science and Ecological Engineering, Korea University
- R&D Centre, Sun Brand Industrial Inc.
- Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, National University of Singapore
- Department of Chemical Engineering, Tsinghua University
- Institute of Green Manufacturing Technology, College of Engineering, Korea University
About Professor Yong Sik Ok
Prof. Ok is a full professor and global research director of Korea University, Seoul, Korea. He has published over 900 research papers and books, 96 of which have been ranked as Web of Science ESI top papers (92 have been selected as “Highly Cited Papers” (HCPs), and four as “Hot Papers”). He has been a Web of Science Highly Cited Researcher (HCR) since 2018 in Cross Field, Environment and Ecology, and Engineering. In 2019, he became the first Korean to be selected as an HCR in the field of Environment and Ecology. Again in 2021, he became the first Korean HCR in two fields: Environment and Ecology, and Engineering.
Prof. Ok is working at the vanguard of global efforts to develop sustainable waste management strategies and technologies to address the rising crisis in electronic and plastic waste and pollution of soil and air with particulate matter. He has also served in a number of positions worldwide, including as an Honorary Professor at the University of Queensland (Australia), Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University (China), Adjunct Professor at the University of Wuppertal (Germany), and Guest Professor at Ghent University (Belgium). He maintains a global professional network by serving as a Co-Editor-in-Chief of Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology, Editor of Environmental Pollution, member of the editorial advisory board of Environmental Science & Technology, and editorial board member of Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Chemical Engineering Journal, and Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology, and several other top journals. He currently serves as the Director of the Sustainable Waste Management Program for the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) and Co-President of the International ESG Association. Moreover, he has served on the Scientific Organizing Committee of P4G Nature Forum: Climate Change and Biodiversity, and Nature Forum: Plastics and Sustainability. Prof. Ok has also served as the chairman of numerous major conferences such as the Engineering Sustainable Development series (ESD series), organized by the APRU and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). In 2021, Prof. Ok hosted the first Nature conference among South Korean universities in Seoul on waste management and valorization for a sustainable future together with Chief Editors of Nature Sustainability (Dr. Monica Contestabile), Nature Electronics (Dr. Owain Vaughan), and Nature Nanotechnology (Dr. Fabio Pulizzi). Prof. Ok will host the first Nature Forum on Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) for Global Sustainability: the “E” Pillar for Sustainable Business.
Method of Research
Subject of Research
Pyrolysis of waste surgical masks into liquid fuel and its life-cycle assessment
Article Publication Date
The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.