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Young Korean designer Haneul Kim recycles face masks to make stackable stools

South Korean product designer Haneul Kim would like to save the planet – one mask at a time. He shares the thinking behind his Stack and Stack stools, made entirely from upcycled PPE material.

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As a design student at Kaywon University of the Arts, I was upset to discover the minimal extent to which disposable face masks are recycled globally. (I’m told it’s because the recycling costs are too high.) It’s a problem that, until the Covid-19 pandemic hit, hadn’t crossed my mind. But in early April of last year, looking at my own desk, I realised I was contributi­ng more than 30 single-use face masks per month. People don’t necessaril­y consider that, weathered and worn, the disposed masks eventually become microplast­ics, posing a risk to both marine and human life. “What am I doing?” I asked myself. “I make furniture – but I also want to recycle masks. Let me combine the two.”

To begin with, I stockpiled disposable masks that I’d used as well as those of my friends. But I quickly realised the quantity that could be collected in this manner was limited. A‡er discussion­s with my university, I placed mask-collection boxes on campus, and was able to acquire thousands of used disposable face masks. I’d regularly empty the boxes, quarantini­ng the masks for a number of days before recycling them to create stackable stools, which I’ve called Stack and Stack. Figuring out the manufactur­ing process kept me up for a night or two. The biggest component of each mask is the filter, so I removed the metal wire that tightens the nose, as well as the ear loops. I was le‡ with the polypropyl­ene filter and the non-woven plastic fabric, both of which I put in a mould and melted using air hotter than 300°C.

The hot air liquefies the mask without discolouri­ng it. At first I was worried about what I’d do if the plastic remained in a liquefied state; the stress kept me from eating for a few days! Thankfully, the liquefied material cools and hardens into a sturdy and durable plastic.

Each stool is made up of about 1 500 used masks, and requires no glue or any additional materials. It’s made entirely from upcycled personal protective equipment.

I love the work of British designer James Shaw. He works primarily with recycled plastic and injection technology, and he has an excellent eye for choosing colours. Each of his products has its own unique beauty – and this inspired my own design. My stools’ marbled patterns in white, black, blue or pink (or various combinatio­ns of these) are not the result of dyes or paints – they are the masks’ original colour. Sometimes, in places, the texture of the individual masks remains visible.

My Stack and Stack stool won the grand prize at my art school’s annual graduation exhibition, in which students compete against one another. It’s received a lot of attention from environmen­tal groups as well as from the media. I’m grateful for this interest – but personally it feels even better to be making my parents proud!

If a mask can become a chair, I think it can become a light, a table or anything else. My wish is that corporates and government­s will consider the potential this waste material offers. I hope I can set an example of how the billions of single-use face masks that the world goes through monthly can be diverted from ending up in landfills or in our oceans.

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