While Covid-19 was spreading across the world, hundreds of companies around the world converted part of their production lines to produce face masks. Similarly, many enterprises started focusing on innovative materials, intending to make these objects more sustainable and eco-friendly. They hope to avert a new waste crisis, as masks are often single-use.
Images of masks thrown away on the side of a road, or strewn across beaches, are becoming more and more common. Researchers at the Politecnico di Torino estimate that, in Italy alone, Phase 2 will require the use of one billion masks. With such predictions being common around the world, the future does not look rosy. This will remain true unless producers start turning towards modular, mono-material design, with more care being placed on end-of-life disposal in dedicated containers placed outside pharmacies and supermarkets. Research and innovation are fundamental in the race to create the best performing, most sustainable face mask. Many proposals have as their primary goal the transformation of an originally single-use object into a product that is reusable, washable, and recyclable. New materials, nanotechnologies, and 3D printing are being deployed to help reach this objective.
Biobased masks made with cork, bamboo, and coffee
Belgian company Captain Cork has come up with a very original idea: making face masks using cork. This material is among the most durable and sustainable, and it contributes to the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. This is because cork is harvested by stripping tree bark, after which the plant extracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to replace the lost bark. Captain Cork face masks have an inner cotton layer and an outer layer made from cork. However, their use for medical purposes has not yet been approved.
Another Belgian company, Share the Passion, is creating organic face masks. These are produced in Portugal using bamboo, a material that is naturally disinfectant and antibacterial. The masks have a biobased nano-coating and can be washed up to one-hundred times. In the Netherlands, Biopromotions and Braskem collaborated to develop a strap that supports masks’ elastic strings, removing pressure from the wearer’s ears and making masks more comfortable to wear. This is especially good for doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel. The strap is 95% biobased, created using sugarcane. “Because of our great cooperation with Braskem, we have chosen a soft biobased material that is very nice to use and also feels soft around the head”, says Robert de Waal, Managing Director at Biopromotions.
AirX is “the world’s first coffee mask”. Made in Vietnam, it was developed by Canadian company Shoex. The face mask is reusable, 100% vegan and biodegradable, and has received the AATCC100 certification, a US standard guaranteeing the performance of antimicrobial textiles. It was designed to withstand 30 days of sustained use. The mask is composed of two layers: the outside is made from coffee using “Powerknit” technology, and the biodegradable inner air filter was developed using silver and coffee nanotechnology.
Biopromotions and Braskem
Recycled plastic and 3D printing
Even 3D printing has shown its use in fighting Covid-19. Chilean company Copper3D are using the hashtag #HackThePandemic to publicise their face mask prototype. Known as NanoHack, the design is free, open-source, and can be downloaded and printed anywhere in the world. And this is not the only time 3D printing and international cooperation have led to solutions to combat the spread of the virus. FabLab and the startup Maha 3D, both based in the Brazilian city of Curitiba, have been producing masks using CIIRC RP95, a model made available by the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics, and Cybernetics in Prague. Thanks to similar collaborative patterns and a free Swedish prototype available online, Ultra Red Technologies in Nairobi is producing affordable face masks for Kenya.
Given the ever-present issue of plastic disposal in the sea, there could not fail to be a face mask made from recycled plastic. It was developed by PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and RashR, an Irish eco-friendly activewear brand. Thus, washable masks with replaceable filters were created using plastic bottles taken from the ocean.
In this exciting environment, filled with innovation and new materials, Italy has not taken a back seat. Treré Innovation - a leader in functional sportswear based in Asola, in the province of Mantova - has created UYN (Unleash Your Nature). These masks, washable at 60°, are made of Texlyte Nano, a high-tech fibre that is normally worn by skiers. Texlyte Nano is Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified and 100% recyclable, making it one of the most sustainable synthetic fibres available today. CEO Marco Redini highlights the fact that “during the emergency, Treré Innovation showed flexibility in adapting to the situation in just a few days, using our know-how to develop a high-quality face mask”.
Many other Italian manufacturers have shown adaptability to the new market conditions. Veneto-based luggage company Roncato created the Botect mask, and Cappello Group - a company in Ragusa that specialises in aluminium - patented Drop, a facemask shaped like a raindrop.
A hub that showed great resilience during the crisis was the area surrounding Matera, thanks to the wealth of pre-existing local textile industry expertise. SCA (Servizi Consulenze Analisi Ambientali) was among the businesses that distinguished themselves in their prompt response to the emergency. This company, based in Pisticci, normally deals with environmental analyses and monitoring atmospheric emissions. It was converted, in record times, into a certification agency recognised by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Italy’s most important health services institute. The certification protocol for surgical masks requires three tests to be passed: bacterial filtration, breathability, and microbial load. SCA can carry out all three checks, thus verifying full adherence to legal standards. The rapid conversion was possible also thanks to a fruitful engagement with the Politecnico di Bari and with the furniture manufacturer Natuzzi, who repurposed their nearby Ginosa plant to produce masks. Politecnico di Bari and Natuzzi are also among the partners chosen by Or.ma, another company based near Matera that has developed a two-layer face mask. One layer is made from non-woven, water-resistant, TNT spunbond fabric created directly from polymers, while the filter layer is made up of two combined sheets of material. Or.ma masks are waiting for approval from commissioner Arcuri before they are put on the market and distributed to hospitals across Italy.
While many researchers are busy looking for a vaccine in laboratories the world over, coronavirus has also spurred innovators and entrepreneurs to develop new ideas to try to stop its spread.