Canadian researchers create biodegradable mask in response to pandemic pollution

biodegradable Can-Mask
Can-Mask is a biodegradable mask frame made entirely from B.C. wood fibres Credit: UBC

As wipes, masks and gloves continue to clog sewage systems around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at the University of British Columbia’s BioProducts Institute are aiming to produce what could be one of the first biodegradable N95 masks.

What researchers say could be called Can-Mask is a biodegradable mask frame made entirely from B.C. wood fibres from sources such as pine, spruce, cedar and other softwoods. The efforts are a result of a partnership between researchers from the faculties of applied science, forestry and science at UBC.

“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,” said researcher Johan Foster, a chemical and biological engineering associate professor in the faculty of applied science.

One prototype from the Institute uses a commercial N95 filter on the front of the mask. Another 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.

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The researchers said they needed to find the perfect ratio of foam, pulp and water for the masks. From a passive standpoint, the mask has to be flexible enough to adapt to different people, researchers said. From an active standpoint, they need to utilize a foam that can create a material that’s breathable and at the same time strong enough to capture a virus.

The Can-Mask pulls double-duty. Not only does it provide some potential relief for sewage systems, but with nearly 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada, PPE supply chains have been strained.

Canada, which has been moving towards a single-use plastics ban under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, has not been documenting the uptick in sewage and curbside pollution during the pandemic; however, many local utilities have issued statements about the challenge.

“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.

UBC Johan Foster and Orlando Rojas
UBC researcher Johan Foster, a chemical and biological engineering associate professor in the faculty of applied science, and chemical and biological engineering professor Orlando Rojas, scientific director of the BioProducts Institute. Credit: UBC

Orlando Rojas, scientific director of the BioProducts Institute and a faculty member with UBC’s faculty of forestry, faculty of applied science and faculty of science, said he’s been regularly photographing some of the pandemic pollution he sees in the environment. He is confident that his solution—the biodegradable mask—could be sourced and manufactured entirely within Canada.

“The Can-Mask is a promising solution, as it pairs B.C. wood—a marvellous material with future potential for advancing our bioeconomy and creating jobs—with B.C. industry expertise and technology developed and tested right here at UBC,” Rojas said in a statement.

As the pandemic lingers, local utilities continue to remind residents not to flush sanitizing wipes or personal protective equipment down the toilet or drain.

“In this challenging time when we are spending more time at home as we do our part, we must be conscious that our homes have to function,” said Rina Seppen, B.C. Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen wastewater utilities foreman, in a statement. “The last thing we need is to have the sewer lines clog and essential services stretched as we work to serve the public needs.”

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