Canadian forestry invents biodegradable mask filter, aims for full mask by Christmas

OTTAWA — A Quebec-based forestry innovation organization says it has figured out how to make a single-use face mask filter out of fully-biodegradable wood products.

Stéphane Renou, the president of FPInnovations Inc., says it could be a game-changer for the environment and for a made-in-Canada supply of masks.

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"The impact could be massive," he said, in an interview. "The amount of masks used around the world is just gigantic."

Earlier this year an article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology estimated that during the COVID-19 pandemic people are throwing out 129 billion face masks every month, some of which become litter that eventually washes into oceans.

Canada alone has ordered more than 153 million N95 respirators, almost 400 million surgical masks and 18 million non-medical face masks. That doesn't include demand from the private sector.

The FPInnovations filter won't meet either N95 or surgical-mask standards, though Renou said that work is ongoing.

Currently the vast majority of disposable face masks have two outer layers with a filter between them, all made from woven plastic fibres.

Renou says over eight weeks this summer 20 FPInnovations employees created, tested and then perfected a filter made entirely from various wood pulps, that can block 60 per cent of small particles.

He says they are now working on the two outer layers and hope to have a full mask completed by the end of the year.

FPInnovations is a non-profit research and development organization that counts as members more than 180 forest companies and related firms. The mask project came up when employees wanted to do something to help with Canada's COVID-19 response efforts, said Renou.

It received about $1 million in funding from Natural Resources Canada to do the filter development, and another $2 million more recently to expand that work to include the outer layers of the mask.

Renou said the filters can be easily made on existing machines, many of which also make toilet paper. The filters are made of wood pulp from both hardwood and softwood trees.

There are companies around the world trying to make more environmentally friendly masks. A company in Vietnam claims to have made reusable, biodegradable and antibacterial face masks using coffee beans.

In June, researchers at the University of British Columbia also said they were seeking Health Canada approval for a medical-grade face mask made of wood products.

The FPInnovations mask filter is being tested by non-government agencies at the moment, and would not be intended for use in hospitals but rather by the general public. Demand for face masks has soared since March, with many municipalities in Canada now requiring them in public indoor spaces, at schools, and on transit.

Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada's Oceans and Plastics campaign, said she would rather see the focus on making reusable masks,

"A single-use mask made of wood fibre, even if theoretically biodegradable, is likely still ending up in a landfill, or even as pollution in our communities," she said. "Biodegradable means nothing if a mask's end of life is someone's bathroom garbage can or a garbage can on the street."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2020.

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