Manufacturing News

Stronger concrete, reduced pandemic waste using new material


Following RMIT University’s work with recycled tyres, engineers have created a way to make stronger concrete while significantly reducing waste. 

The RMIT School of Engineering has found that disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) can be used as reinforcement materials in structural concrete. The studies discovered that using shredded PPE could increase the strength by 22 per cent and improve resistance to cracking. 

The RMIT team is the first to investigate the feasibility of recycling three key types of PPE – isolation gowns, face masks and rubber gloves – into concrete, combatting the wasteful aftereffects of the pandemic.  

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 54,000 tonnes of PPE waste have been produced on average globally each day. About 129 billion disposable face masks are used and discarded around the world every month. 

Casafico Pty Ltd has partnered with the team to use the research findings in a field project. 

“We urgently need smart solutions for the ever-growing pile of COVID-19 generated waste – this challenge will remain even after the pandemic is over,” RMIT vice-chancellor’s Indigenous pre-doctoral Fellow and first author, Shannon Kilmartin-Lynch said. 

“Our research found that incorporating the right amount of shredded PPE could improve the strength and durability of concrete.”

The RMIT team’s concrete that was made using PPE. Image credit: RMIT University.

Joint lead author, Dr Rajeev Roychand, said there is a potential for construction industries to play a significant role in transforming this waste into a valuable resource. 

“While our research is in the early stages, these promising initial findings are an important step towards the development of effective recycling systems to keep disposable PPE waste out of landfill,” he said. 

In three separate feasibility studies, disposable face masks, rubber gloves and isolation gowns were first shredded then incorporated into concrete at various volumes, between 0.1 per cent and 0.25 per cent. 

The research found: 

  • rubber gloves increased compressive strength by up to 22 per cent; 
  • isolation gowns increased resistance to bending stress by up to 21 per cent, compressive strength by 15 per cent and elasticity by 12 per cent; and 
  • face masks increased compressive strength by up to 17 per cent. 

Corresponding author and research team leader, Professor Jie Li, said PPE waste is significantly impacting the environment. 

“We have all seen disposable masks littering our streets, but even when this waste is disposed of properly it all ends up in landfill,” Li said.   

“With a circular economy approach, we could keep that waste out of landfill while squeezing the full value out of these materials to create better products – it’s a win on all fronts.” 

Next, the team will evaluate the potential of mixing PPE streams, develop implementation strategies and work towards field trials. 

The RMIT team is keen to collaborate with the healthcare and construction industries to further develop the research. 

The studies were published in the journals Case Studies in Construction MaterialsScience of the Total Environment and Journal of Cleaner Production. 

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