Breathing new life into face masks

The UNSW SMaRT Centre was a partner in the “Up-Masking” initiative of the Greater Cities Commission (GCC) and the Western Sydney Local Health District and local schools to demonstrate remanufacturing and decarbonisation potential of used face masks and personal protective equipment to prevent it becoming waste.

As part of the collaboration, various schools were involved including Catherine McAuley Catholic Girl's Secondary School whose students visited the SMaRT Centre to learn more about the science and technology behind SMaRT's innovations that can reform waste face masks into completely new products such as ceramic tiles.

Also involving Our Lady of Mercy College Parramatta, Westmead Hospital and Westmead Children's Hospital, single use disposable masks were collected over a period of time using bins provided by SMaRT Centre so SMaRT could find innovative ways of recycling them back into something useful.

Approximately 114 kg of masks were collected and were re-manufactured into different tile products, with one 310 x 310 tile requiring 172 masks to be made.

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Face masks and tile

Students were provided an update on the upmasking project they had participated in and they were able to handle some of the prototype products made from the waste masks.

The school tour not only was a chance to showcase SMaRT Centre's Labs and onsite MICROfactoriesTM but to help inspire the younger generation about the many exciting career paths that a STEM education can lead to. ​


Catherine McAuley Westmead LinkedIn post

Greater Cities Commission LinkedIn post

Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network news story on the project

By Sydney Children's Hospital Network

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks have been used as a way to protect the community from COVID. Now, thanks to a new recycling initiative, they are also being used to protect the environment.

Mask specific recycling bins have been installed all around the Westmead Health and Innovation Precinct, including around The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, as part of a new pilot project to turn disposable face masks into useful recycled materials.

The “Up-Masking” project is an initiative of the Greater Cities Commission (GCC) and the UNSW Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SmaRT) Centre in partnership with Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network and Western Sydney Local Health District and has been designed to demonstrate remanufacturing and decarbonisation potential from personal protective equipment before it turns into waste.

Currently, through the use of pioneering technologies at UNSW’s SMaRT Centre, teams have been able to use recycled face masks to create antimicrobial tiles.  

Bart Cavalletto, Director of Strategy and Innovation at SCHN, says the “Up-Masking” project is a way to give face masks a second life and has opened up so many possibilities for creating new, useable products moving forward.

“The exciting thing is the potential of what we can do in the future with recycled face masks,” Bart said.

“Rather than these face masks just going to landfill, we will hopefully soon be able to create bowls, trays and so many other things for use in hospitals and the best part is they be recycled time and time again.”

Face masks can take hundreds of years to break down – threatening wildlife, littering beaches and polluting the food chain. This project is hoped to be a way to contribute to lessening this environmental impact and creating a more sustainable future.

“Our Network’s purpose is to help children live their healthiest of lives. We want to ensure that children now and in the future, grow up in a world where they can enjoy good health and wellbeing,” Bart said.

“This project really helps to support that purpose and allows us to look at different ways to recycle PPE and potentially other waste. It will help change the way we work and will help stop vast amounts of waste going to landfills, and into the ocean.”

Mask recycling bins are currently placed at all main exits at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and will remain until the end of the pilot project in mid-August.