Fraunhofer Institute UMSICHT, SABIC, and Procter & Gamble (P&G) announced their collaboration on an innovative circular economy pilot project to show the feasibility of closed-loop recycling of single-use facemasks.
The usage of billions of disposable facemasks as a result of Covid-19 has generated environmental issues, particularly when they are thrown carelessly in public areas. Apart from the difficulty of dealing with such large quantities of critical personal healthcare products in a sustainable manner, just discarding worn masks for disposal in landfills or incineration facilities constitutes a loss of valuable feedstock for new material.
Director of R&D and open innovation at P&G, Dr. Peter Dziezok, said recognizing the difficulty, they set out to investigate how old facemasks may be repurposed in the manufacturing of new facemasks. However, a genuine circular solution that is both ecological and economically viable requires collaboration. As a result, they collaborated with Fraunhofer UMSICHT experts and SABIC technology and innovation experts to examine potential solutions.
P&G collected used facemasks worn by employees or given to visitors at its production and research locations in Germany as part of the trial. Despite the fact that these masks are always disposed of ethically, there was no effective way to recycle them. Special collecting bins were set up to assist show a potential step shift in this scenario, and the collected used masks were transferred to Fraunhofer for further processing in a specialised research pyrolysis facility.
Head of recycling management at Fraunhofer UMSICHT, Dr. Alexander Hofmann, said that a single-use medical product like a facemask has stringent hygiene standards, both in terms of disposal and manufacture. Mechanical recycling would have been ineffective. As a result, the masks were automatically shredded before being thermochemically transformed to pyrolysis oil in their solution.
Dr. Alexander added that under pressure and heat, pyrolysis breaks down the plastic into molecular pieces, destroying any remaining contaminants or pathogens such as the coronavirus. This allows for the production of virgin-quality feedstock for new polymers that also meet the criteria for medical goods.
SABIC received the pyrolysis oil and utilized it as a feedstock for the manufacture of fresh PP resin. The resins were made utilizing the well-known mass balancing concept, which combined alternative and fossil-based feedstocks in the manufacturing process. Mass balance is regarded as a critical link between today's large-scale linear economy and the more sustainable circular economy of the future, which is already being implemented on a lesser scale but is projected to expand rapidly.
SABIC's global circular economy leader, Mark Vester, said, the high-quality circular PP polymer achieved in this pilot clearly illustrates that closed-loop recycling is feasible via active collaboration of partners from across the value chain. The circular material is part of their Trucircle range, which is focused on avoiding valuable used plastic from becoming garbage and reducing resource depletion.
Finally, the PP polymer was sent to P&G, where it was manufactured into new nonwoven materials to complete the loop.
P&G's senior director of open innovation Hansjörg Reick said this pilot study has helped them assess if the close-loop method may work for sanitary and medical-grade plastics. Of course, more study is required, but the preliminary results are quite encouraging.
The entire closed-loop pilot project took about 7 months to create and implement, from facemask collection through manufacturing. Fraunhofer is investigating the applicability of advanced recycling to different feedstocks and chemical products.
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