ECU team eyes recycled masks as a way to improve roads


GREENVILLE, N.C. (6/24/2021) – They end up in the trash. They end up in waterways. They end up on the ground in parks, at the beach, or in yards. They end up in landfills. Perhaps soon, those disposable medical masks that have been such a big part of the COVID-19 pandemic may end up reinforcing the asphalt used in road construction.

Faculty and students in the East Carolina University Department of Construction Management have been working with S.T. Wooten and the N.C. Department of Transportation this spring and summer to determine the possibility of using the polymer fibers in recycled masks in hot mix asphalt used to pave roads.

The hope is that the addition of the recycled masks will help the asphalt resist rutting — the permanent deformation of pavement that can occur as vehicles drive on the same areas on roadways over and over again.

“The coronavirus pandemic has not only created a global health crisis, but it is also now threatening the environment,” said Dr. George Wang, chair of ECU’s Department of Construction Management. “Even if disposed of correctly, single-use face masks made of polypropylene have a lifespan of a couple of hundred years before breaking down in landfills. To mitigate these environmental challenges, we as researchers in construction in higher education have obligations to explore possible ways to reduce, recycle and reuse the disposed of single-use COVID-19 face masks.”

The process begins by simply shredding the masks. The material is then added to the hot mix asphalt by .25% to 1.5% of the total weight. With paving conducted at up to 300 degrees, the plastic in the masks becomes fluid and acts as a binding agent that hardens and stiffens as it cools. This could help reduce road rutting, which is caused by traffic volume, tire pressure and axial load and often emerges in the first few years after a road is paved.

“Rutting is the major distress of asphalt pavement and happens on some major intersections along the wheel path,” Wang said. “It can cause accidents with water ponding in the rut and in wintertime when water in the rut freezes.”

So far, results of N.C. Department of Transportation testing appear favorable, with the sample asphalt exhibiting “excellent to very good resistance to permanent deformation.” Wang said that while the state allows a maximum rut depth of 11.5 millimeters for local roads and 4.5 millimeters for interstate highway pavement, testing of various mixtures with the recycled masks shows a rut depth range of .9 to 3.2 millimeters.

“With the increase in the content of fiber, the rut decreases,” Wang said. “That means that this mix is designed for local roads, and because of the fiber addition, it can be used as higher grade road pavement.”

Wang, associate professor Dr. Carol Massarra, teaching assistant professor Dr. Jodi Farrington, teaching instructor Chelsea Buckhalter and graduate student Md. Hasibul Hasan Rahat is conducting the research.

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