One of the unexpected consequences of the current pandemic is the high volume of discarded surgical face masks littering the streets and even washing up on beaches.
And as the use of these masks becomes ever more widespread there is growing concern about the impact of this waste on the environment.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada may have come up with a solution by using one of the country’s most plentiful raw materials – wood – to develop a fully compostable and biodegradable medical grade face mask.
“With escalating tensions during a pandemic, international supply lines for medical masks can break down, creating local shortages,” said researcher Johan Foster, a chemical and biological engineering associate professor in the faculty of applied science. “When we decided to design a mask back in March, we knew early on we wanted a solution that uses local materials, is easy to produce and inexpensive, with the added bonus of being compostable and biodegradable.”
The new mask—dubbed Canadian-Mask, or Can-Mask—ticks all those boxes, said Foster, who’s also the NSERC Canfor Industrial Research Chair in Advanced Bioproducts at UBC.
The mask frame is made entirely from British Columbia wood fibres from sources such as pine, spruce, cedar and other softwoods. One prototype uses a commercial N95 filter on the front of the mask, the other uses a filter specially designed by the UBC team from wood-based products. Both prototypes are currently being tested to ensure they meet health industry specifications for fit and permeability, with plans to apply for Health Canada certification in the near future.
The researchers believe the mask is a good alternative to the synthetic masks currently in use. “With millions of disposable masks and gloves already polluting city sidewalks and potentially entering our rivers and oceans, we urgently need a biodegradable option to avoid making a massive impact on our environment,” said Foster.
Developing the mask took the combined efforts of a multidisciplinary team that included researchers from the faculties of applied science, forestry and science at UBC.
“The Can-Mask is just one of many opportunities for UBC researchers to help address an ongoing issue, while also stimulating B.C. and Canadian economies through novel research, use of local resources, and helping get everyone back to work,” said Orlando Rojas, Scientific director of the University’s BioProducts Institute.