Stéphane Renou, president of FPInnovations Inc., says this could be a game-changer for the environment and for a supply of made-in-Canada masks.
“The impact could be huge,” he said in an interview. “The amount of masks used around the world is simply huge. ”
Earlier this year, an article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology estimated that during the COVID-19 pandemic, people throw away 129 billion face masks every month, some of which become garbage that eventually spill into the oceans.
Canada alone has ordered more than 153 million N95 respirators, nearly 400 million surgical masks and 18 million non-medical masks. This does not include demand from the private sector.
The FPInnovations filter will neither meet N95 nor surgical mask standards, although Renou said work is underway.
Currently, the vast majority of disposable masks feature two outer layers with a filter between them, all made from woven plastic fibers.
Renou says that for eight weeks this summer, 20 FPInnovations employees created, tested and perfected a filter made entirely from various wood pulps, which can block 60% of small particles.
He says they are now working on the outer two layers and hope to have a full face mask completed by the end of the year.
FPInnovations is a non-profit research and development organization with members over 180 forestry and related companies. The mask project emerged when employees wanted to do something to help Canada’s response efforts to COVID-19, Renou said.
It has received approximately $ 1 million in funding from Natural Resources Canada to develop the filters, and $ 2 million more recently to extend this work to 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 from wood pulp from both hardwood and softwood.
All over the world, companies are trying to make more environmentally friendly masks. A Vietnamese company claims to have made reusable, biodegradable and antibacterial face masks from 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 from wood products.
The FPInnovations mask filter is currently being tested by non-governmental agencies and is reportedly not intended for use in hospitals but rather by the general public. Demand for face masks has skyrocketed since March, and many Canadian municipalities now need them in public indoor spaces, schools and on public transit.
Sarah King, Oceans and Plastics Campaign Manager for Greenpeace Canada, said she would prefer to focus on making reusable masks,
“A single-use wood fiber mask, even if it is theoretically biodegradable, will likely always end up in a landfill, even pollution in our communities,” she said. “Biodegradable means nothing if the end of a mask’s life is someone’s bathroom garbage or a garbage can on the street. “