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Cleantech startup UBQ converts used face masks into ecofriendly material

Potentially harmful to the environment when not disposed of properly, single-use PPE can be put to use, along with other waste, by Israeli firm

Protective face masks hang on an abandonded boat in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa port on October 28, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Protective face masks hang on an abandonded boat in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa port on October 28, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In nearly a year of living under the relentless pressure of the coronavirus, one trend has emerged globally — the donning of single-use masks, or so-called personal protective equipment (PPE), which has skyrocketed since the onset of the pandemic.

Disposable PPE, associated in years past mainly with those working in the medical field, is now ubiquitous. We use them and then we discard them.

Made from non-woven fabrics, found in products like filters, wipes and diapers, and held together by felting or bonding, these face masks are not easily recyclable. If not discarded and then sent to landfills, these masks could end up in places where they can wreak harm.

One marine conservation organization, OceansAsia, estimates that of the projected 52 billion masks produced in 2020, 1.56 billion will end up in the ocean — generating pollution that can seriously damage the ecosystem.

Israelis wear protective face masks as they shop for food at the local market in Safed, northern Israel. June 24, 2020. (David Cohen/FLASH90)

Last summer, the United Nations warned of serious consequences that could stem from improper PPE disposal, including the release of toxins into the environment and the possibility of secondary disease transmission to humans.

As a result, the UN Environment Programme has urged governments to treat the management of mask waste as a public health service.

Israeli cleantech startup UBQ Materials is working to solve this issue and convert PPE into the bio-based material it produces, which can be used as a substitute for oil-based plastics in the manufacturing of thousands of products.

The startup has developed a way to transform unsorted waste into an additive for the plastics industry that can be used in products like furniture, toys and car parts.

In the past few months, UBQ has injected significant amounts of PPE into its reaction chamber, together with other non-recyclable waste materials, like mixed plastics, food scraps, cardboard, where it is broken down and reconstituted as a new, plastic-like composite material.

UBQ Materials has developed a technology that takes unsorted household waste — from banana peels to dirty diapers to used yogurt containers and cardboard — and converts it into a bio-based thermoplastic — a plastic substitute (Courtesy)

The influx of PPE has not impacted the technology or final material, and the company has adapted to changes in the waste stream, said Liat Arad, the company’s vice president of marketing.

The final material is thermoplastic and compatible as a raw material in industrial applications, and can then be used in any standard manufacturing process of a variety of products.

The startup was founded in 2012 by Yehuda Pearl and Jack Bigio, both with  a background in business and entrepreneurship, who were inspired by the idea that organic materials could be broken into their natural components to be later transformed into usable material.

It took six years to develop both the process and material. All the machines used by UBQ were invented by the company and in 2018, they unveiled the sustainable UBQ material to the plastics industry.

UBQ works with a small-scale plant in the Negev, at Tze’elim, with the capacity of producing 7,000 tons of material a year, and has “extremely aggressive expansion plans,” Arad said, including a large-scale facility expected to open in the Netherlands in 2022 with the capacity to produce 70,000 tons of material a year.

“We have seen an increase in the amount of PPE in the waste stream, which is to be assumed,” Arad said. “We’re able to also encompass this transition — and this change and these fluctuations in the waste — and go on as normal.”

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