Project promoted by the SEREMI of Science and the Environment and executed by UDT seeks to reduce the environmental impact caused by the disposal of these personal protection elements, whose use – given the pandemic – has grown significantly within companies.

More than 20 thousand surgical face masks per week are used by industrial fishing in the Biobío Region, as part of the measures and protocols for the prevention of contagion in the framework of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result of the significant volume, the Association of Fishing Industries (ASIPES in Spanish) joined the project that seeks to reduce the environmental impact of the use of personal protection elements, as well as investigate options to open work alternatives in this line for micro and small companies.

The initiative, which was born in the Social Board of the Regional Government – where ASIPES participates – is promoted and coordinated by the SEREMIs of Sciences and the Environment and its execution depends on the Technological Development Unit (UDT) of the Universidad de Concepción, place where the SEREMI of Science, Paulina Assmann, together with the head of sustainability of the fishing union, Monserrat Jamett, arrived on Wednesday morning to meet with the Director of UDT, Alex Berg, and with the head of the Technical Assistance Division, Carla Perez. The objective of the visit was to know in detail the beginning of the recycling tests with the first disposable face masks withdrawn from the companies Landes, Blumar and PacificBlu.

One of the main points to be highlighted by the SEREMI of Science in the Central-South Macrozone, Paulina Assmann, was to achieve public-private association for the care of the environment and strengthening of the technology and innovation ecosystem. “In our articulating role for different public and private institutions, we decided to contribute with the care of the environment in the Social Board led by our Mayor Sergio Giacaman. This is how this alliance between Science, Environment, UDT and ASIPES was born as to reduce the environmental impact that the use and disuse of personal protection elements is having, under current regulations and with the care that their handling must entail”, indicated the macrozonal authority.

“In the framework of the pandemic, the fishing industry has implemented protocols and measures to prevent contagion, so each company has had to deliver a very significant volume of Personal Protection Elements (PPE) to their workers as to reduce the risks of contagion during their working hours. Within these PPEs, more than 20 thousand surgical masks are delivered per week, which must be arranged in authorized places once used, so we were interested in participating in this project, in the sense of looking for an option to avoid a larger generation of waste”, explains Monserrat Jamett Leiva, Head of Sustainability at ASIPES.

For the SEREMI of the Environment, Mario Delannays, the initiative “is a positive action in terms of recycling, for which we value the ASIPES initiative. We know that in times of pandemic the use of face masks is key, from a health perspective, but from an environmental perspective, we are looking for a new use to this product and, in addition, we are preventing them from ending up in a landfill. For our part, we will be monitoring the progress of this initiative, which will allow us to obtain a mold, a format to be replicated in another productive sector”.

This is how UDT is expected to carry out a pilot trial that considers the selective collection of three-fold and N95 surgical masks, the sterilization of the material and the evaluation of the technical and economic feasibility to mechanically or chemically recycle the plastic.

The massive use of disposable face masks brings serious environmental problems. “These personal protection elements are made of tiny polypropylene fibers, a material that practically does not degrade, can accumulate in marine and terrestrial environments, and causes damage to animals, humans and natural environments. To provide a solution to this problem, we are evaluating 2 alternatives for recycling PPE at UDT, one mechanical to obtain pellets that can be used again in plastic products, and one thermochemical, through pyrolysis, to obtain hydrophobic waxes”, says Alex Berg, Director of UDT.

In the first instance, only the fishing companies of Talcahuano, Landes, Blumar and PacificBlu will participate, which placed exclusive containers in their different facilities for the collection of face masks. Later, depending on the progress of the project, the participation of other companies will be evaluated.