In recent weeks we have seen dozens and dozens of transparent terminals appear in the town halls of Tours Métropole, at the entrance to schools or at the CHU. You put your disposable or fabric masks there and once full they are taken care of by Tri 37, stored at La Riche… while waiting for their content to be transformed for a more virtuous second life. It is the company Neutraliz – a new division of Pollair Environnement based in the Cité de la Création et de l’Innovation Mame in Tours – which initiated this program called NEOVALO. The result of 6 months of work, a project requiring several million € of investment in just a few years. While the company will soon invest a hangar of several thousand square meters in the agglomeration of Tours and begin its recycling process there, an interview with its co-founder: Guillaume Labarrière.
How did you come to work on the recycling of masks?
During the first containment, fabric masks and disposable masks were marketed. After a few weeks, at the rate of several hundred thousand units, we said to ourselves: “It’s not possible, we sell clean waste. »It struck our ecological conscience and we wondered how to deviate towards a virtuous approach of recycling this material. At the end of June we started to see industrialists. One by one we unblocked the technical problems, in August we concluded that everything was possible: we were therefore able to launch our initiative at the beginning of September to collect, transform the material and reuse it in suitable channels.
So this is a program to which you attach great importance?
This invasive waste – the mask – is a phenomenal nuisance for the environment and local communities who can no longer remove hundreds of units in their wastewater, when collecting rainwater on sidewalks or in the city. nature. There is therefore both an ecological issue but also a phenomenal economic impact.
And on your business plan, you assume that we will need masks for a little while …
Exactly, and we must not forget that this mask that we use today to protect ourselves exists in many other aspects. You have companies that use hundreds of thousands of masks per month in cosmetics, food, precision mechanics, or the manufacturing of processors. They work in atmospheres with a controlled atmosphere that require employees to wear sanitary masks identical to anti-Covid models. Until now, there was no recovery channel. When we started our approach, large companies came to us to express their interest in the protection needs of employees as well as in the industrial process.
So even if tomorrow the general public stops wearing the mask, will you still have an industrial outlet?
Yes, knowing that we take the bet that the mask will be part of our daily uses for a long time. In Paris, the density in public transport is 4 people per square meter. So whether it’s a flu, a cold … We are betting that the mask will become commonplace: people will agree to wear it to protect themselves and others.
Up to 720 tonnes of masks recycled in one month
Is it complicated to recycle a mask?
From a technological point of view, no. The machines and equipment exist… but the implementation is quite complicated since the complete process represents a 100m long chain to set up the various stages up to the extruded product in the form of granules.
How exactly are you doing?
First we collect the masks: each terminal can receive between 1,800 to 2,000 masks. They are about 50 liters and are transparent because we realized that we had to display the waste so that people are not mistaken. The full terminals are replaced by empty ones then dumped in a center with a UV radiation decontamination tunnel. There follows a process of crushing, dissociation of the rubber bands and the nasal bar. We dry, we grind again and then there is a whole process until the extrusion.
So in the end we end up with…?
Polypropylene granules that can be re-injected into fields such as textiles or plastics.
Concretely what happens to our masks?
They can integrate the building sector as insulation, a substitute for glass wool for example. It is also a fiber that can be incorporated into concrete and fiber-reinforced plasters to seal cracks in houses. In textiles, granules are heated and manufacturers pull threads to create technical clothing such as sports or agricultural clothing. With polypropylene we can make tarpaulins, nets… In the plastics industry, we can design objects such as bumpers, indicators or car dashboards.
You sell the logs and the companies make do with it. That’s it ?
About fifty employees expected within 3 years
What is your assessment of the start of the collection campaign?
We are extremely surprised at the speed at which the terminals are filled, especially at the Tours University Hospital – where only non-infectious waste is collected, for example people who visit sick people, especially not medical staff in contact with sick people. It’s encouraging. 400 terminals are in place in town halls, schools, public places… We currently collect between 60 and 70 each week. Full.
Have you already started the recycling process?
For the moment we are massing the masks and we will begin the transformation during the first quarter of 2021. We are in the process of securing an important site for the establishment of the production chain. It will gradually ramp up and will be fully operational in June. For it to work correctly we need several tens of tons of material: it will run 24 hours a day because we cannot stop it like that. Otherwise it would take us two days to relaunch it. At full capacity, this line is intended to process a ton of masks per hour. One ton is 250,000 masks, enough to make 420kg of polypropylene in granules without counting by-products such as fiber-reinforced concrete. Ultimately, we hope to process 720 tonnes per month.
The masks of Tours Métropole will not be enough to reach this volume?
If we captured all of the agglomeration’s products, we would reach around 85 tonnes per month. This is not insignificant but would barely represent 10-12% of our processing capacity.
So you will be working with other clients elsewhere?
Our clientele is growing nationally. From the Cotentin peninsula to the south of France via Amiens, the Lille or Paris region. We have requests from everywhere and we are looking to develop according to a cluster principle: for example, we were approached by a large company in Caen. We have contacted a selective sorting service provider who brings us between 17 and 20 additional companies, which allows us to justify our deployment. The objective is for our processes to be as virtuous as possible to improve the deposit. Knowing that the transformation remains in Tours.
How many people will this work?
Between 18 and 22 people the first year, and between 50 and 55 people within three years. The project is to create – within two years – our own factory by integrating polypropylene-based insulation into the frame. For this we work with Solutions Composites who invented a building block in which we can affix our product based on recycled masks.
One more degree:
Map of mask recycling stations is on the Tours Métropole website.