According to a 2020 study, an estimated 194 million disposable facemasks are being used globally every month during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, an increase in mask usage, especially those made from plastic materials, has led to a new environmental problem. To address this challenge, a diverse group of engineers and medical professionals are developing solutions for environmental-friendly masks.

For instance, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made a reusable facemask using silicone rubber that can stop viral particles as effectively as N95 masks. This mask can be sterilized and reused several times, and also has space for replaceable N95 filters.

Engineers are also working on masks using biodegradable materials. A Vietnamese footwear company called ShoeX is making a coffee facemask with 99.99% dual antibacterial technology. The mask’s outer layer is composed of a coffee yarn, and the inner layer has a biodegradable filter created using coffee beans and silver nanotechnology. These single-use masks have very high rates of air filtration efficiency and permeability.

While these efforts are significant in developing the next generation of environment-friendly masks, a majority of the masks currently available and under development are being tested only on adults for fit and comfort — kids, such as my 3-year-old brother, are rarely included in the product design and usability studies. Besides, children, especially those engaged in playing or just running around, end up accumulating saliva and mucus in the masks. Yuck! Wouldn’t it be amazing to create a reusable, biodegradable mask made exclusively for kids?

My idea is to design such a mask that will leverage the advances in mask manufacturing, but address current limitations with simple, yet effective engineering principles. First, I will get rid of the ear loops in the masks, and instead develop an approach to mold the reusable silicone rubber in the form of an eyeglasses arm that can be customized for every child. Not only this simple design change will make it easier to wear the masks, but also enhance fit and comfort. Second, I will engineer a color-changing sticker attached to the masks that will detect saliva and mucus accumulation. This sticker can even be enhanced to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus as shown by the recent work of Dr. Jesse Jokerst, a professor of Nano engineering at the University of California, San Diego. Finally, I will incorporate biodegradable filters made from relatively inexpensive materials, such as hemp, that are effective in air filtration.

I plan to work on this endeavor, keeping in mind that designing a mask, much like any science and engineering project, should be inclusive. To this end, not only will I collaborate with engineers and researchers across multiple social and demographic backgrounds, but most importantly, partner with a diverse group of children across the world for mask design and development. If all of us get together, we can design and mass-produce a highly reusable, biodegradable, affordable mask made by and for the kids.

ANYA PATHAK

Greenville Elementary School

Grade 5

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