A designer’s wildly inventive way of using old face masks

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Masks have been a powerful tool in the fight against the pandemic, but they also create enormous waste. Every minute, three million masks are used worldwide – or 129 billion each month – the majority of which are single-use products made from plastic microfibers.

[Photo: courtesy Tobias Zambotti]

Since plastic masks cannot be recycled, they will end up clogging landfills where they will not biodegrade but will break down into smaller and smaller plastic fragments that end up in our waterways, harming the environment. both animals and humans. But what if we used old masks to create useful new products? This is the idea that drives Italian artist and designer Tobia Zambotti, whose latest project is a quilted jacket filled with plastic masks as insulation.

[Photo: courtesy Tobias Zambotti]

Zambotti realized that most disposable masks on the market are made from polypropylene, a plastic with temperature-regulating properties that is often used in polyfill, a common padding in down jackets. Zambotti, who is based in Iceland, collected 1,500 light blue masks that littered the streets of Reykjavík and disinfected them. “Even though COVID-19 particles can only survive on masks for about seven days, I kept them in a sealed plastic bag for a month to make sure there was no trace, ”Zambotti wrote in an email. “They were also disinfected with an ozone spray.”

Aleksi Saastamoinen and Tobias Zambotti [Photo: courtesy Tobias Zambotti]

Zambotti then collaborated with Aleksi Saastamoinen, a fashion design student at Finnish Aalto University, who turned the recycled masks into padding for a jacket. Later, they deliberately made the exterior of the jacket from an opaque, waterproof laminate material, so that the masks inside were visible. They call the final garment Coat-19.

[Photo: courtesy Tobias Zambotti]

Zambotti’s mantle is conceptual, designed to highlight what he calls “an absurd environmental problem with a pandemic”. He is one of several designers who are thinking about the possible uses of this waste. Korean designer Haneul Kim, for example, melted thousands of plastic masks, then dyed the molten plastic and used it to create furniture. But if we are to tackle the waste associated with the billions of disposable masks and gloves thrown away in the face of the health crisis, we need ideas on a larger scale.

[Photo: courtesy Tobias Zambotti]

A promising solution has emerged in France. A company called Plaxtil developed a way to take plastic fabrics, grind them, mix them with a binding substance, and turn them into a material – which they call Plaxtil – which can then be molded into plastic for other products, like face shields. Before the pandemic, she had specialized in recycling clothing, but in July 2020, she began to focus exclusively on recycling plastic masks. It spins through about 50,000 masks per month, turning them into over 2,000 plastic products.


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