As if we didn’t have enough litter to deal with, the coronavirus pandemic has brought with it a deluge of discarded single-use face masks strewn about streets, beaches, parks, and trails like contaminated confetti.
Every month, 129 billion disposable masks are used and thrown away around the world. They’re an environmental disaster in their own right, especially the surgical kind made of polypropylene plastic. For starters, birds get their legs tangled in the elastic straps and sea creatures mistake them for food. Then as they break down into micro-plastics, they pollute waterways, and eventually our drinking water. But unfortunately for us all, they’re also a crucial part of combating the coronavirus.
Reusable fabric masks are a better choice, and at the very least, governments could be educating the public about how to dispose of them and coordinating mass clean-up campaigns. In the meantime, one South Korean furniture designer has an idea for making use of all the waste. With “Stack and Stack,” Haneul Kim transforms thousands of used disposable masks into colorful stools in white, blue, pink, black, and multicolored palettes.
“The disposable mask consists of a plastic (PP) material, melt blow filter, and spun-bond,” Kim writes on Instagram. “I make a chair-shaped module that melts, cools, and hardens the plastic mask. Thousands of masks, which were this thin fabric, combine together and finally have the durability of a hard, tough plastic. I hope that the curiosity of recycling masks will not stop at the object of chairs, but will be the possibility to inform the seriousness of environmental pollution and solve the problem.”
Kim breaks down the process in a series of Instagram posts, including how the masks were melted down into polypropylene globs and formed into various shapes. Experimental discs demonstrate the effects of mixing different colors of masks together with interesting dappled results. Each stool also has three legs which are constructed separately from the seat and then formed together with hot plastic and clamps. The results are certainly a little rough around the edges, but you can see how a little polish could make them resemble something you’d see for sale at a place like IKEA.
Finding a new purpose for used, bacteria-laden masks may strike you as a gross and potentially dangerous task, but there’s no need to worry about the finished stools being contaminated. Setting up a mask collection box at his school, the Kaywon University of Art and Design in Uiwang city, Kim gathered 10,000 used masks from his peers, along with more than a ton of defective masks straight from a factory. He then kept them in storage for at least four days to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission, removed all the elastic bands and wires, and used a heat gun to melt them within shaping molds. Trust us: the temperatures it reaches of over 570 degrees Fahrenheit are more than enough to kill any microbes present.
The 18-inch-tall stools went on display at Kim’s graduation exhibition, and he plans to expand “Stack and Stack” to additional furniture pieces like chairs, tables, and lamps in the future. Hopefully, this project will inspire others to find new uses for this newly ubiquitous litter, or at least encourage people to properly dispose of their old face masks.