A Newmarket company is just weeks away from finalizing a prototype for an eco-friendly and inexpensive pulp paper face mask that filters more than 90 per cent of airborne particles, including the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
With a $300,000 boost from the federal government’s NRCan IFIT Program, local pulp products manufacturer Pulp Moulded Products, in partnership with Kruger Inc., a leading pulp and paper company with a focus on sustainability, have been tasked with creating a made-in-Canada, non-surgical and effective antiviral mask that is as easy on the pocketbook as it is on the environment.
The prototype is already months in the making and work continues on its breathability, along with testing the possibility of including an antiviral agent in its formulation.
“Testing has found the mask to provide between 90 per cent and 95 per cent filtration (of airborne particles), which is awesome, and very close to the N95 mask, which is the gold standard,” Pulp Moulded Products CEO Gord Heyting said.
The recycled pulp paper mask fits snugly around the nose, mouth and chin and is held on by a surgical elastic band that fits over the head. When it comes to market, Heyting said it will likely be sold for less than .50 cents per piece, or about half the price of most non-surgical masks already on store shelves.
During a tour of the Pulp Moulded Products Kerrisdale Boulevard manufacturing facility, Heyting describes the process of fashioning products from recycled paper, corrugated cardboard and newsprint as deceptively simple.
The recycled materials are placed in a vat and mixed with water, where they break down. The material is then poured into a mold, heated at a high temperature and dried. The final product hits the big three of sustainability, including that it is biodegradable, compostable and recyclable.
“With the masks, you can even light your campfires with them. All joking aside, it’s paper,” said Heyting.
Before the COVID pandemic sent the community into lockdown this spring, Heyting said he was prepared to pivot his growing 12-year business to help in the fight against the potentially deadly disease.
“We agreed to not only pivot to help our company, but also pivot to help in general during the pandemic,” he said. “As it turns out, masks have become more and more important as we learn more, and the messaging has gone from don’t wear masks to we must wear masks.”
The company had been working with the Natural Resources Ministry’s Investments in Forest Industry Transformation program, which encourages the Canadian forest sector to use unique technologies and processes to produce new forest products for emerging markets that help tackle climate change.
The $300,000 in funding was provided through that program to create the mask prototype. The mask production and supply chain will also be 100 per cent Canadian, eliminating dependency on imports for the production of non-medical masks.
“The other idea behind it is we’re seeing all these blue disposable masks which we know don’t work very well because there’s big air pockets around it and they don’t filter that well,” said Heyting.
“Also, we’re looking at all these disposable masks lying on the ground and being thrown out, it’s becoming a serious landfill mess, garbage and contamination issue,” Heyting added. “So, our pitch to the market is we have a single-use, highly effective, inexpensive, locally and reliably sourced antiviral green alternative, and everyone should have them.”
Once the pulp mask is ready to hit the market, Heyting estimates his company can produce about one million a week.
He envisions the masks as ideal for a variety of shopping, taking transit or Uber, in workplaces, waiting in line at Service Ontario, or other situations where a one-time use mask is required.
“We’re waiting for some big retailers or government contracts to come forward,” he said. “We need to get that first big win to get going.”
The Newmarket plant currently operates two production lines 24 hours a day, with a third expected to roll out by October 2020. That expansion is expected to add upward of about 45 new jobs.
Pulp Moulded Products recently started a joint venture with a U.S. company where it supplies green pulp packaging for glass products, including Yankee Candle.
One of the company’s newest products, an eco-friendly mini cucumber tray, now racks up about 10 to 15 million units in sales per year. It also produces green packaging for auto parts giant Magna, and other packing materials for the beverage alcohol industry.
“With the cucumber tray, the best part is that every time we sell one, it displaces a black styrofoam tray, so it’s such a huge win for landfill,” said Heyting, adding that the company plans to make inroads into the produce industry, and is already working with companies in Mexico to get the produce trays into that market.
Heyting said that Kruger Inc. has been instrumental in the mask’s formulation and that once the pandemic is over, his company will continue to work with them to penetrate the produce and horticultural markets.
Kruger Inc. vice-president of global sustainability and biomaterial, Maxime Cossette, said in a statement that the company is pleased to team up with Pulp Moulded Products.
“Their recognized expertise in moulding, combined with our know-how in recycling and low-carbon footprint fibre products, allow for the supply of sustainable pulp to provide Canadians with access to more eco-friendly disposable masks,” said Cossette.