- A Filipino high school student has developed a plant-based wax that has shown potential in increasing the life span and effectiveness of reusable face masks.
- Kiara Raye Cartojano, 18, says she hopes the project can reduce the number of disposable face masks discarded in her city, estimated at more than 480,000 per day since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The wax is made from the leaves of the taro plant, a widespread plant with the potential to displace native vegetation and threaten agricultural crops.
GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines — Eavlinda Buhat, 57, says she couldn’t help but notice the number of disposable face masks littering the beach in downtown General Santos City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
“I have lived in this coastal community for a long time now … trash has always been an issue,” Buhat, who has lived in the city’s Purok Islam neighborhood for almost 40 years now, told Mongabay in Filipino. “But now, it has worsened as face masks and sometimes even face shields are littered on the shore.”
With a population of more than 660,000 people, General Santos City generates almost 140 tons of trash every day. This includes an estimated 480,000 masks that are now being disposed of daily since the pandemic began last year, according to the municipal waste management office (WMO). These used face masks often end up in environmentally sensitive areas if they’re not collected efficiently, said John Duane Hitalia, the WMO public service officer.
The problem inspired 18-year-old Kiara Raye Cartojano to develop a wax that would help improve the lifespan of reusable face masks. Her chosen ingredient: taro leaves.
Having been involved in research since grade school, Cartojano is particularly interested in using waste or excess organic material to create sustainable products. Her recent research, called “TAKIP,” a Filipino word that means “cover,” explores the feasibility of using wax from the heart-shaped taro leaf (Alocasia macrorrhizos) as a hydrophobic coating for reusable face mask fabric.
A hydrophobic layer, which repels water, is an important characteristic that enables masks to protect users from possible transmission of COVID-19 and other pathogens. Cartojano conducted an experiment earlier this year immersing taro fragments in hexane, a petrochemical solvent that was accessible to her during the testing phase. As the solvent evaporated, it left behind a wax that she then applied to square cotton fabric samples to test for hydrophobicity.
Tests show that by applying taro leaf wax to reusable fabric face masks made the fabric hydrophobic, giving them a longer absorption time in water compared to samples with no coating. “Some reusable face masks now even have slots in between the fabric to fit filters,” Cartojano said. “Basically, the hydrophobic coating from taro leaf wax is just a more sustainable enhancement for protection.”
Further, harvesting taro leaves to turn into wax wouldn’t hurt the environment. Taro is a fast-growing plant widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, including the Philippines. It is adaptable and widely dispersed and, left unchecked, can displace other plant life.
Cartojano said that turning taro leaves into wax is much better than letting them conquer agricultural areas. “Taro can grow anywhere, in fact, it even grows near canals and its leaves are usually just thrown away.”
Roden C. Yumol, a science teacher at Cartojano’s school, Shalom Crest Wizard Academy, said taro’s high hydrophobicity was a major consideration in this study as it could work in protecting face masks. Yumol also attested to the effectiveness of the leaves.
“Last year we targeted the challenge of SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] regarding the environmental impact of disposable face masks. Many plants were looked into at first, but we eventually found that as for taro, no study was conducted yet. More so, the plant’s possible hydrophobicity is very high, which is the primary factor considered for protection in face masks,” Yumol said.
“Upon testing, it was observed that taro leaf extract worked better if applied through cloth as it would last longer. Aside from the test results, the feasibility of TAKIP was also recognized in both national and international science contests,” Yumol said.
The research has received a citation in the ongoing Virtual Innovation Competition (VIC) 2021 Malaysia and was awarded as 4th Best Project under the Physical Science Category during the Research Fair 2021 of the University of the Philippines Academic League of Chemical Engineering Students (UP ALCHEMES).
“These recognitions in varied competitions which were judged and critiqued by distinguished professionals in their chosen fields firmly attest that taro leaf wax is indeed a feasible material for reusable face masks, and that further studies are yet to be done to ultimately perfect the product,” Yumol said.
The research fair’s panel of judges raised concerns that if TAKIP is unevenly applied on cotton masks, small pores in the material could enable water droplets (such as sweat and saliva) to still be absorbed. They also recommended that tests be conducted for possible skin allergies, and a series of laboratory analyses to test how efficiently the coated masks filter out bacteria and viruses.
In an official statement to Mongabay, fair organizers of UP ALCHEMES said TAKIP has the potential to address a pressing environmental concern that arose during this ongoing pandemic: the dilemma of face mask disposal.
“With promising results and accessible local sourcing of materials, TAKIP’s application to enhance reusable cotton masks may be a good alternative to single-use masks. From the accolades mentioned, UP ALCHEMES can therefore vouch for its feasibility as a scientific venture for its effectiveness, and environmental and social potential,” the statement said.
With no assurance of when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, Cartojano said it’s important to venture into sustainable alternatives to face masks and prevent more solid waste problems.
Ethan Kisses Guevarra is a campus journalist in General Santos City. This story is part of the Association of Young Environmental Journalists’ (AYEJ.org) Green Beat Program.
Matthews, P. J., Agoo, E. M. G., Tandang, D. N., Madulid, D. A. (2012). Ethnobotany and ecology of wild taro (Colocasia esculenta) in the Philippines: Implications for domestication and dispersal. Senri Ethnological Studies, 78, 307-340. doi:10.15021/00002523
Banner image of a used disposable face mask by Brian Yurasits via Unsplash.
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