Green Startup ÖKOSIX’s Innovative Rapidly and Fully Biodegradable Surgical Mask
A Substitute for Non-Woven Fabrics to Fight the Plastic Pandemic
(Hong Kong – 14th June 2002) A survey found that public awareness about the environmental and health effects of microplastic released from disposable face masks is weak, and that neither eco-friendliness nor fabric softness are considered in a face mask purchase decision.
Representatives from technology sector, green groups, accreditation organisations and green businesses gathered at the sustainability forum “Say No to Plastic Pandemic – A Greener Way to Contain COVID-19” today to discuss sustainable development strategies, plastic pollution and how to make use of innovative technologies to advance re-industrialisation and develop greener and healthful COVID-19 products as a way to help curb the “plastic pandemic” that is worsening amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Local green tech startup ÖKOSIX shared its research and development result – the world’s first rapidly and fully biodegradable surgical mask made from plant-based and natural materials. The technological breakthrough is set to redefine “single-use disposable item”. Apart from face masks, the technology will also be applied to make plastic-free versions of other everyday disposable items such as diapers, sanitary napkins and air conditioning filters. The goal is to replace petroleum-based non-woven fabric with an alternative which can be decomposed rapidly, within several months, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of disposable plastic products as well as offering more plastic-free options to consumers.
Few Face Mask Users Acted on Their Knowledge of Plastic Pollution
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the way we contain the pandemic has increased tremendously plastic wastes in Hong Kong. That includes the 4 million to 6 million hard-to-degrade face masks discarded each day. In order to gauge public awareness about health and environmental effects of wearing face masks, ÖKOSIX conducted an online survey in May, which received 262 replies.
Eddie Yu, founder of ÖKOSIX, announced the survey results at today’s forum. The findings show that over 85% of the respondents chose disposable surgical masks for everyday use while only 6% wear reusable face masks. 73% of the respondents discarded more than one mask per day. Among those who wear reusable face masks, more than half did not know that the filtering layer is made of plastic and thus its effects on the environment and health. Regarding factors affecting a purchase decision, price, filtration/protection and breathability are considered to be the most important. Few people took into account the eco-friendliness and fabric softness of a face mask.
When asked to name any discomfort when wearing face masks, nearly 60 % of the respondents said “hot and sweaty”; 30% said “skin irritation, acne/pimples” and also 30% had “difficulties in breathing smoothly”. Moreover, nearly 40 % of respondents did not realise that spraying alcohol on a face mask would increase the release of microplastic, which might cause harm to the human body. The majority of respondents realised that disposable masks cause plastic pollution, but 80% of them underestimated the time it takes to break down polypropylene in the environment, the major material of plastic face masks, to be 100 years, while scientists estimated that to be 1,000 years. Most respondents said they are willing to buy a plant fiber and natural materials based, biodegradable face mask at the same price of an ordinary surgical mask.
Currently, surgical masks are mostly made of plastic and can take up to 1,000 years to degrade completely. Some types of plastics decompose in photocatalytic degradation to fracture and degrade into tiny pieces, namely microplastic, when exposed to the UV in sunlight. According to a study conducted by the City University of Hong Kong, an improperly discarded face mask in the ocean could release 0.88 million to 1.17 million microplastic particles. The microplastics will be ingested and accumulated in the intestines of marine animals, reducing their reproduction ability by up to 22% and thus disrupting marine ecology.
Lower Impact on the Planet & People: Not Only “Biodegradability”, What Matters is ”Compostability”
“The environmental and health effects of microplastics are alarming. In the absence of research studies on the impact of the increased use of disposable plastic products during the pandemic, consumers need more information and product choices”, said Eddie. The “Say No to Plastic Pandemic – A Greener Way to Contain COVID-19” forum was aimed to raise awareness about the plastic pollution and to promote discussion among the tech and manufacturing industries on possible strategies to fight both the COVID pandemic and the plastic pandemic in a greener way.
Consumers are having a wider range of green products by the day. Several speakers at the forum pointed out that use of “biodegradable materials” alone is not equivalent to a good solution to plastic pollution.
Mr. Litto Tam from SGS gave a presentation on the difference between “biodegradability” and “compostability”, along with the related certification standards. He said the claims of being “biodegradable”, “photo-degradable” or “compostable” by marketers cause confusion. He advised consumers to refer to the American Society of Testing and Materials ASTM D6400/EN13432 certification standard, which is the certification for testing a biodegradable/compostable product’s ability to decompose in composting conditions. The test involves four pass/fail criteria and is therefore more credible than the ASTM D5511 standard, which is a single test to measure biodegradation in anaerobic environment. Greenwashing is another issue of concern as some companies make false or overstated claims for their products. It is noteworthy that the ISO14021 Environmental Labels and Declarations standard specifies requirements for self-declared claims of “biodegradable” and “compostable” materials regarding products.
ÖKOSIX Innovates Nano Fiber Filter Layer for Medical Face Mask
Sharing ÖKOSIX’s journey of the development of plastic-free face masks, Eddie said that his quest for biodegradable materials for face masks was prompted by the surge in plastic waste during the pandemic. However, the conversion of bio-based, biodegradable materials into fabric suitable for making the filter and water-proof layers was limited by technical constraints. He therefore worked with NAMI in an attempt to overcome such technical hurdles. Eventually they came up with a breakthrough technology that enables the crafting of the world’s first plastic-free, medical face mask fabrics that can be biodegraded and composted in 6 months (ASTM D5511 test and D6400 certification standards). The fabrics will be decomposed into water, carbon dioxide and other non-toxic biomass, releasing no plastic, heavy metal or toxins during the biodegradation process. The technology redefines the medical face mask – safeguarding the wellbeing of both people and the environment without causing microplastic pollution. The technology application is pending patent and won the Gold Medal of International Exhibition of Inventions Geneva in March 2022.
Conventionally the filter layer of a face mask is a plastic “non-woven fabric”. It is produced by blowing molten plastic polymer solution through hot air nozzles to deposit on a rotation drum, where a fiber mesh structure will be formed. This melt-blown process does not need spinning or yarn formation. By contrast, bio-based materials, when liquefied by heat, have a lower fluidity that makes it difficult to go through the melt-blown process. Dr. Tin Lau of Nano and Advanced Materials Institute (NAMI) explained how his scientist team overcame the limitation by using the innovative electrospinning technology, coupled with fiber enhancement technique. The technology allows the liquefied bio-based materials to completely fuse with the fabrication solution. Every droplet of the bio-based material fibers is loaded with static electricity, which can become cohesive and be blown in the form of fine fibers under the repulsive force created by a high electric pressure.
ÖKOSIX mask fabrics were 90.6% decomposed in 90 days in the anaerobic biodegradation test that simulates the waste-packed landfill environment (ASTM D5511). In the ASTM D6400 certification test which is consider the golden standard for compostable and biodegradable materials, OKOSIX fabrics have passed the disintegration, toxicity and compostability test with the performance of 90 % degradation in 120 days (the certification standard requires that the material must reach or exceed 90% conversion into water, carbon dioxide and non-toxic biomass in 180 days ) .
Eddie called for support from companies by collaborating with ÖKOSIX on social responsibility initiatives and support from social impact investors for the scale-up of ÖKOSIX’s production. ÖKOSIX face mask is scheduled to be launched in July upon completion of the certification tests. Interested parties are welcome to follow ÖKOSIX’s fan page for latest updates and information.
Innovative Technology Application A Greener Way to Contain COVID
Speaking as the Guest of Honour, Dr. David Chung, JP, Undersecretary for Innovation and Technology, remarked that the technology sector had contributed a lot amid the pandemic. The joint effort of ÖKOSIX and NAMI to innovate a green-tech engineered face mask gives a good example to demonstrate that innovative technology can serve a social purpose of creating a better life for people. That is also why the Innovation and Technology Commission (ITC) supported the research and development of that technology. In the past year ITC invested HKD37 million in the research and development of nano technology and granted a total of HKD77 million to green businesses. “We wish that the innovation and technology R&D results will become a force of good to reinvigorate Hong Kong’s economy and the manufacturing industry while addressing the societal needs and making “Made in Hong Kong” shine again.”
Remarking at the seminar, Dr. Matthew Pang, Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development Office, CUHK, said in the face of climate emergency, global efforts to curb greenhouse emissions will be critical in the next several years. Governments, NGOs and businesses must cut carbon emissions so as to meet the United Nations’ as well as Hong Kong’s Sustainable Development Goals. The promotion of plastic-free, reusable and biodegradable products is one of the solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Precision-oriented nano technology and bulk production are two concepts at two ends. Dr. Teresa Law, Hong Kong Electronics & Technologies Association (HKETA), supporting organisation of the event, said the initiative of ÖKOSIX to apply nano technology in the making of consumable products is groundbreaking and a step forward to curb plastic pollution. The technology application is worth promotion and adoption. The HKETA provides a platform for members to exchange ideas and collaborate. It has stepped up its efforts in supporting and nurturing members in relation to the application of remarkable green tech and materials.
Dr. Law gave tips on buying a truly eco-friendly and healthful face mask – choosing a mask, including the ear loops and nose clip, which can be rapidly and wholly biodegraded and to make reference to the SGS accreditation standards.
Creating Covid-19 Products with Green Concept
Mr. Ricci Wong from Hong Kong Timberbank and Mr. Benny Au from Hong Kong Distillery have jointly developed a new brand “Port of Scents” during the COVID-19 pandemic. They shared their story of re-industrialisation at the forum. In view of the heavy use of chemical additives in cleansers available in the market, they came up with an idea to extract essential oil from the leaves and wood of recycled Christmas trees and use the essential oil to create a green hand sanitizer with a Nordic scent. The two social entrepreneurs also talked about their experiences and the outlook of the upcycling industry.
ÖKOSIX Limited is a green tech startup established in 2021, with a mission to develop and make disposable products from natural materials that return to nature after use, thus conforming to its motto “From Nature to Nature”. We make biodegradable materials as a substitute for petroleum-based plastic, and to promote the formation of a plastic-free circular economy. The ultimate goal is to bring a positive impact on the wellbeing of the environment and people of Hong Kong.
We work with environmental groups to promote recycling and reuse of resources, reduced plastic use from the source as well as the practice of sustainable living, with an aim to advance the development of sustainable materials-based manufacturing which is a global trend. We also work to enhance public understanding of “biodegradability” and “compostability” and the related accreditation standards.