Dr. Johan Foster & Dr. Orlando Rojas on the SDGs: Changing Canada One Biodegradable Can-Mask at a Time

Adrienne Ahn, BCCIC Digital Communications Volunteer, sat down for an online interview with Dr. Foster and Dr. Rojas – the creators behind the timely and locally-sourced Can-Mask which she shared as a news story in May – to discuss its value-added to the SDGs.

Dr. Foster and Dr. Rojas (Photo by Paul Joseph/UBC)

As the drastic effects of COVID-19 swept throughout Canada, a valuable partnership has emerged between two local researchers who took the opportunity to breathe life into a uniquely-positioned concept.

Johan Foster is a Chemical and Biological Engineering Associate Professor in the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of British Columbia. Originally from British Columbia, he relocated to UBC at the beginning of March after diving into international research and teaching for 13 years in the Netherlands, Switzerland and at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). 

Orlando Rojas is a Professor affiliated with the departments of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Chemistry and Wood Science at UBC. Prior to his roles as the Scientific Director of the BioProducts Institute and Director of the Pulp and Paper Centre at UBC, he worked internationally in Sweden, the United States, and Finland. 

As committed scientists and educators with a myriad of accomplishments, their motivations have been to utilize their individual scientific knowledge to collectively make an evidence-based difference in the world. 

“For me, my motivation is the idea of using resources that are renewable and that help with climate change and the environment,” Rojas said. “In the future, we will have a need to use things that are around us to make or fulfill our needs, and I think that using plant fibres is a good topic that many students are interested in.” 

Foster echoes these thoughts and believes that asking the right questions can create more potential for innovation and added value in product streams. “I think there’s opportunity in being able to take bioproducts and natural, local materials and [asking] can we shorten the supply chain? Can we use something that people understand locally, like B.C. wood?”

This dialogue has become much more important in the current context, with millions of disposable masks and gloves contributing to increased pollution in our cities, land and oceans. What could a propitious solution that considers the intersection between high demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and mitigating negative environmental impact look like?

“It was a very natural evolution. We are working on many different things but when the challenge of the face masks came, it was just natural that we connected all the dots. In the BioProducts Institute where we both belong to, there is a little bit of background research in the area of air filtration and Johan and myself also bring our own expertise,” Rojas said. “All this combined became a very simple solution to a problem that is of a non-degradable mask that is all around us. What we discussed was: why don’t we put our efforts together to see if we can use plant fibres and solve this problem? 

Since March, Foster and Rojas have been at the forefront of developing the Canadian-Mask – also known as Can-Mask – the world’s first fully compostable and biodegradable N95 medical mask that has the added value of being sourced locally in Canada.

“I think the necessity of COVID has led to a lot of innovation here and everywhere else. It was a natural progression from our previous research to opportunities that we can take here. That pushed us not to solve just this problem but the application of bioproducts, sustainability, and biodegradability to many different things whether it’s PPE or single-use plastics,” Foster said. “It’s a lot of the exact same materials that can be brought together in non-analogous ways to create a mask or a gown versus a plastic fork or replacement for a plastic fork. So [there’s] a lot of different things that we can potentially do with the skill set that we’re developing within the context of the Can-Mask.”

With their complementary skill sets and experiences as researchers, scientists and educators, Foster and Rojas have been using a combination of multidisciplinary strategies to tackle this particular problem. 

“This [idea] is very obvious to us because we know the subject and we think about this every day, but what we’re lacking is connecting with society. Communication is so important and I think this is what we have achieved so far with the Can-Mask. We have put the word out, people are taking note and learning about this possibility,” Rojas said. “I think this is an educational exercise that is very important for us as scientists. We need to connect with society and sell the idea so that we can put this in the minds of society.”

“I think the opportunity for this is interesting because six months ago, we never would have seen a waste of masks and gloves around. Solving this problem is something we can put in people’s heads, but the same thing can be said for coffee cups and all the other plastic waste that’s out there,” Foster said. “Why can’t we solve all those problems too? This one is a current problem and a good problem to solve; it’s got the need from both sides. But going forward, there are other problems that need to be solved and other problems that we don’t know about yet. We need to develop that skill set.”

(Photo by Paul Joseph/UBC)

The two professors have continued to work in multiple research areas including bioproducts, cellulose nanomaterials, renewable biopolymers, and implantable materials. Rojas, who was appointed the Canada Excellence Chair in Forest Bioproducts began his career as a Chemical Engineer and did paper-making early on before moving on to using wood fibres or plant fibres. 

With regards to these fibres Rojas said, “[They] offer many solutions to future human needs as far as materials and energy.”

On the other hand, Foster, who is also the NSERC Canfor Industrial Chair in Advanced Bioproducts began his career as an Organic Chemist by training at Simon Fraser University. 

“I moved into polymers – plastics actually – and then started doing more in nanocellulose and bioproducts because I found it interesting and there were very interesting scientific problems to solve. Then I naturally [went] into bioproducts and bio-based materials. Again, somewhat because of the need of the world but also because it was scientifically interesting,” Foster said.

After combining both of their skill sets, this team of problem-solvers is prepared to apply their ideas to projects that prioritize reducing unsustainable impacts on the environment. When questioned about how the Can-Mask advances specific Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Foster and Rojas took turns describing the ways in which their innovation converges with the Global Goals. 

“For the mask, particularly [SDG 3] Good Health and Well-being,” Foster said. “In terms of waste reduction, when we’re talking about millions or tens of millions or hundreds of millions of masks within Canada, that starts to become a problem if all of that is added to the waste stream. What we would pitch is that this is fully biodegradable so [once] it’s in a compost, then you have soil after a while. Along with that, life below water for sure. The reason why the current state of the mask works very well is because they’ve got very fine polymer fibres in there. That helps the filtration but they also break down very nicely into microplastics [which] are going to end up in the ocean.”

In order to understand how the mask addresses SDG 13 for Climate Action, Rojas – whose research also focuses on finding effective alternatives for fossil materials – emphasizes the need to clarify a popular misconception. 

“…There’s a controversy if cutting trees is good or bad. In many people’s minds, cutting trees is bad. But actually, we need to tell the world that there’s a misconception about this. Using the forests in a sustainable manner is actually a big solution and probably the only solution and alternative to fossil carbon,” Rojas said. “When we use the fibres from trees as the country develops more biomass – because every year we grow in biomass – that biomass needs to be used. If it’s not used, we have quicker problems. The more rapid this cycle of planting and using fibres is, the better because we fix more carbon from the atmosphere and this is very important for climate change. Whatever we can do with the sustainable use of plantations, which are trees that we plant and not natural forests, then the better because we will help in the mission of sustainable growth and development.” 

As countries around the world work towards achieving the UN SDGs, the Can-Mask that is built with wood fibres from B.C. pine, spruce, or cedar sources highlights SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production in its aim to reduce the harmful environmental impact caused by disposable PPE. Nevertheless, the team acknowledges that there is a market for both. 

“For certain things, you want the barrier properties of plastic or rubberwe’re not going to supplant the whole petroleum-based mask products out there. What we want to do is create a good chunk of the market that is sustainable in that it is recyclable or compostable and the source is more local,” Foster said. “If we have to get our polymers from Texas or internationally, there’s interesting implications in terms of the politics involved unfortunately; we’re talking about limiting mask exportation from certain countries. There’s a worry about that, if the next pandemic is worse, can we address the local need locally both with the production and also the source? The fact that we use a local product locally, in this case B.C. pulp, allows us to address that locally. Not to say that you can’t use other pulp, but our current generation of masks helps to deal with that.”

(Photo by Paul Joseph/UBC)

On the same subject of how the Can-Mask will address SDG 12’s targets and indicators, Rojas shared the sustainable and environmentally sound practices that they are working with. 

“In the whole process, we don’t use any chemicals or solvents that are toxic. We use natural resources in a very sustainable manner so all we need is fibre and water for the most part. This means the resources are available in almost any other community or country different from Canada,” Rojas said. “I think it’s a very good solution because environmentally, if you think about toxic streams, here there is not much so the production and disposal of the material is environmentally-friendly. Think about this: when you create a fibre, it uses light, water, and [carbon dioxide] from the atmosphere. We’re taking those and transforming them into a mask which eventually goes back into the soil in the composting process so another plant can grow. It’s very cool.”

“Think about how paper is made. We use a similar approach but we need to put air to have a material that is lightweight and porous so that you can breathe through. If you put a piece of paper, you cannot breathe. That’s a problem,” Rojas continued, gesturing with his hands in front of his face. “We’re trying to solve that problem by making something [with these features]. At the same time, we use nanotechnologies to put little fibres that Johan described earlier that are able to stop microdroplets from going through the material. We have breathability and filtration capacity for which we use fibre membranes or filters that have the right structure. And that fine tuning is very important. It sounds like a simple design but it’s actually quite complex because we need to work with different aspects of the material properties.”

He emphasizes that the Can-Mask is multi-functional and has several elements that are essential to building its capacity: breathability, filtration efficiency, being flame retardant, able to stop very small particles by being electrostatically-charged, and being made of protein-rejecting material.

“In a nutshell, we take water, fibres, air and we mix them altogether to make a membrane that acts as filtration material.”

Despite these features, the researchers have planned to keep this particular solution accessible and inexpensive. According to Foster, the majority of the material is pulp and paper with added bioproducts so there is no reason to think that the Can-Mask won’t be at a very competitive price.

“If you think about the cost of a piece of paper, it’s pretty low so the materials cost is not an issue. To the cost per mask, we think it will be very competitive because a lot of the same techniques are used in other industries and the creation of the mask itself will utilize some of the same procedures for making current masks,” Foster said. “It’s a tough question to answer because it’s economics of scale too. If we make one, the cost might be very high but if we make 100 million the cost might be very low.”

At this stage, the Can-Mask is still at the prototyping level which is why the emerging partnerships, support, and interests from companies and manufacturers have been significant for the team. 

“Johan and I want to say that this is not a mask; this is a concept. We’re selling a concept. The concept is the use of fibres to address material needs. It can go beyond masks to be a gauze, robes, or wearables,” Rojas said, adding that their work can stimulate Canadian economies by advancing SDG 8 and creating more employment opportunities.

“The reception from the consumer or the medical industry [also matters]. Is it seen as something that people want or not? Is biodegradability or pulp-based materials important for the medical industry or for the consumer? We hope so, that’s why we’re making the pitch. But it’s also about acceptance,” Foster said. 

As for the future of their innovation, the researchers shared that they are looking to make a mask that is available for the medical field and a mask that is accessible to the public.

“If a medical mask is contaminated, a lot of the time they are incinerated by the hospital. The biodegradability is less of an issue there. But for consumer masks, they don’t necessarily have the same risk of exposure to blood,” Foster said. “We want to make a consumer mask that is fully biodegradable and a medical mask that is a little bit higher-rated, but it will be available for both.”

One of the main challenges their team has been navigating is understanding how to best produce a material that can eventually fit different people’s needs. However, the researchers also acknowledge the positive lessons they have had since starting this project.

“The main challenge for us is to understand the implications from ideation to making it work in industry. It’s a long way we need to learn and we need to access other experts so that we can learn the process better. We are not trained to be business developers so we need to access [other knowledge] outside,” Rojas said. “That’s a challenge that I think is an opportunity as well. A positive thing I see is the reaction by society and the media. That has been very fulfilling for us because it shows us that people are very concerned about sustainability and the environment. I think it shows that if you have a good idea, people can work together around the same idea so that things can move forward together with the government, universities, and the general public.”

“Orlando and I are experts, but experts in a very specific area. We understand the materials and the characteristics which means that we can make a small amount of material in the lab. But being able to scale that, get it accepted, certified – we can make ten of them but can we make one million of them?” Foster added. “In terms of the surprising opportunity, I see the opportunity that the acceptance has opened up in front of us in terms of other applications that we can do with the team at the BioProducts Institute. We can help solve a bunch of these sustainability problems and the SDGs. The Can-Mask is one example, but it’s just the current example.”

For the two leaders at UBC who wear many different hats as professors, scientists, researchers, and problem-solvers, working on national sustainable solutions is a meaningful challenge. Even taking a walk together in their neighbourhood to enjoy nature before the meeting serves as a reminder that strong partnerships, and working together for positive environmental change and a thriving world matters. 

“We can do some good. Not necessarily just good for the sake of good, but good for the sake of every aspect whether it’s the economy, jobs, or all of this. They’re not mutually exclusive. We can do all of this together,” Foster said. “I think a lot of people see it as you have to do something for the environment or for the economy, but they’re not mutually exclusive. We can do all of these things together and that’s the opportunity that I see.”

“It fits very well in the concept of a circular future, a circular bioeconomy. We use a resource that can give us the opportunity for recreation,” Rojas said. “If we have trees, good water, a clean environment, clean air and we can enjoy parks and recreation, that’s important. It’s a social-psychological aspect. At the same time, we can satisfy material needs so the main motivation is the concept of circularity and the future of circular bioeconomy that is so important to Canada. I think that’s the way to go.”

While there are a lot of challenges that remain to advance all 17 SDGs, including SDGs 3, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, and 15, Foster and Rojas are hopeful to make a difference with their scientific background and encourage Canada to take on new opportunities that will improve the intersection of health and sustainable production and consumption. 

“We don’t want to replace every mask, but we want to have a sustainable option that can fulfill a consumer need. The opportunities going forward are somewhat endless —not as a mutually exclusive option but really helping to create a more sustainable, local, and shorter supply chain solution,” Foster said.

“In Canada, the use of fibre resources is so important, especially for B.C. that we need to go beyond trees, lumber or timber for construction and pulp-making. They can open up opportunities, new jobs, new innovations so we need to embrace that idea. If not, someone else will take over that idea anyhow,” Rojas said. “For me, the idea is to use fibres beyond what we do today. The pulp and paper industry needs reinvention and needs to think about future materials beyond pulp, paper and construction materials. We need to do it because other countries are already thinking in the same way and we need to invest in our innovation.”

Both an opportunity and challenge has presented itself and the multidisciplinary team working with Foster and Rojas have stepped up to help them make this biodegradable ‘made-in-Canada’ mask a reality. 

“It was a very nice coincidence and opportunity. In every challenge, there is an opportunity and this is just one example. And this is just the starting point,” Rojas said.

“Going forward, I think there’s a lot of opportunity. We’ve got the right crew together at the BioProducts Institute to really make a difference,” Foster said. “Getting our voice out there and getting this concept in front of people is important so that we can be seen as the people that can help with these problems. Not on our own, but to be able to work with everybody else we need to work with to solve these problems.

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