GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – Researchers at East Carolina University are testing used face masks to improve roadways and reduce pollution. 

“This project has started late February. And we are trying to use face masks, disposable face masks to improve the quality of asphalt,” said Assistant Professor at the Department of Construction Management at ECU Carol Massarra. 

Their research found that plastic found in single-use face masks can be added to asphalt to help prevent rutting in the road. Rutting often occurs on roads after years of wear and tear and can eventually lead to crashes. 

“Rutting is a major problem for the roads because sometimes we see the major distress and the holes, and the intersections of the road which causes many accidents,” said graduate student Md. Hasibul Hasan Rahat. 

When adding the face mask material to a mix of hot asphalt, the plastic becomes a fluid and acts as a binding agent. 

“My professors asked me to this research and see the reasons, and part of it is we tear up the face masks into small pieces by removing the ear loop and the nose strip and mixing them in the asphalt,” said Rahat. 

The testing has gone well, according to the team of researchers. 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.

This project is also good for the environment because face masks have the potential to take a couple of hundred years to break down in landfills. 

“This face mask, actually, the material used to produce the face mask is plastic, called polypropylene, which takes 25-50 years to degrade,” said Rahat. “So, if we dispose or dump into the landfill, so it will cause more pollution, it will not be degraded so soon.” 

They add this has all been a team effort. Other members of the team included Dr. George Wang, chair of ECU’s Department of Construction Management, teaching assistant professor Dr. Jodi Farrington and teaching instructor Chelsea Buckhalter. S.T. Wooten Corporation and the N.C. Department of Transportation were also involved. 

“I want to say that this is a true teamwork effort project,” said Massarra. “So, it’s not like one or two people doing it, it’s a team, and we are very excited about the result, and we want this to be used here in Eastern North Carolina.”