Often found lying in streets, single-use face masks might be turned from road litter into roads thanks a novel process developed by Australian researchers.
A study from Melbourne's RMIT University has shown about three million masks can be recycled to build a kilometre of a two-lane road, preventing 93 tonnes of waste from going to landfill.
The new road-making material is a mix of one per cent shredded single-use face masks and 99 per cent processed building rubble.
The researchers found incorporating shredded masks into the rubble adds stiffness and strength, and meets civil engineering safety standards.
"We were thrilled to find it not only works but also delivers real engineering benefits," the study's first author Dr Mohammad Saberian said in a statement.
The new technique addresses environmental challenges on two fronts - personal protective equipment disposal and construction waste.
PPE use has grown exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an estimated 6.8 billion disposable face masks used globally each day.
RMIT School of Engineering research team leader, Professor Jie Li, said the study was inspired by seeing discarded masks littering their local streets.
"We know that even if these masks are disposed of properly, they will go to landfill or they'll be incinerated," he said.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has not only created a global health and economic crisis but has also had dramatic effects on the environment.
"If we can bring circular economy thinking to this massive waste problem, we can develop the smart and sustainable solutions we need."
The experimental study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment on Monday, was conducted with a small amount of unused surgical face masks.
But a comprehensive review last year found the "microwave method", where masks are sprayed with an antiseptic solution then microwaved for one minute, can kill 99.9 per cent of viruses.