The greatest designer is nature – circular facemask

How many times a week does your eye catch a single-used facemask on the streets? China alone is producing around 450 million masks per day due to the increasing demand. The incorrect disposal of those masks by the public is becoming a serious problem. It turns out that Industrial Design Engineering student, Mari Genova (22), has a passion for circularity. After having taken the Design With Nature minor she became a student researcher within Mission Zero Centre of Expertise. Right now, she is working on a project aiming to design a circular facemask.

Mari and the sea-animals

Prevent facemasks increasing the plastic soup

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected us all in one way or another. While countries are outlining strategies to bring down the transmissions rates and secure their economies, the planet has been suffering too. The WHO estimated that since the beginning of the pandemic the need for surgical masks has increased by 40%. Mari: “We all have seen the blue facemasks lying on the streets. Unfortunately, 80% of the trash that we find in oceans comes from the streets. Imagine thousands of masks made from plastic going into the ocean, increasing the already existing problem of the plastic soup. Mission Zero felt the urge to contribute to solving this problem. So, the idea of a circular mask was born.”

Developing a fibre from potato peels

The project exceeded its initial scope. Students from the program called Process and Food Technology were asked to help create a material for a circular mask. Currently, two groups of students are working on the project. Mari: “For the past 5 months, they have been researching and testing materials. They had to find an available waste stream in the Dutch region and make a material out of it. They are working on developing a fibre for the masks from potato peels, orange peels, milk and fungi.” The two teams are currently in the final stage and are conducting some final tests.

Analyzing the filtration system of sea creatures

Meanwhile, Mari engaged in designing a filter for the masks. She explored existing filters and the principles they use. She familiarized herself with masks that are already on the market. She also conducted multiple interviews to understand what are people’s facemask preferences. But the most important part is of course her research on many organisms that have the kind of filter she needs: a system that filters small particles. Most of them are sea creatures like salps, manta rays, sponges, and whales, but she has also explored the filtration system of non-sea animals like flamingos. Mari: “I have analyzed the mechanisms organisms use to filter particles. It is fascinating how much we can learn from nature and its wonders.” Now, she will use these mechanisms and paraphrase them into a design language.

Biomimicry – learning from organisms in nature

To design the filter, Mari has been relying on her knowledge of biomimicry, the design method practiced during the Design with Nature semester that she took last year at the Industrial Design Engineering program. Having nature as a mentor is the very essence of biomimicry. Mari found out that researching organisms to learn from them helps us find solutions to various problems: “Let’s say you want to design a cooling system, then you should study thermites’ mounds. You might want to capture and absorb water, then you should explore desert moss.” Mimicking organisms’ mechanisms and systems is not enough though. The design should also follow the Life’s Principles - life lessons from nature - and transform those into requirements.

Mari found her passion

Mari lived in Bulgaria before she decided to sign up for Industrial Design Engineering at the Hague University of Applied Sciences in 2018. When she had just started the program, she had not yet decided what type of designer she wanted to become: “I remember being in my first year wondering what path I should take on. Thanks to the guidance of the teachers and the freedom of being able to choose between different courses, I found my passion. Instead of designing the most beautiful product or the smartest one, I want to solve complex social and environmental problems through designing products or systems.”

Asking questions to gain understanding

While taking part in the Mission Impact minor Mari learned a lot more about circular economy and different perspectives to approach challenges: “It was a crazy ride that enormously prepared me for my mask project and graduation. Ultimately, it also made me more self-confident. The minor taught me that it is more important to keep asking questions to gain understanding, instead of quickly jumping into solutions.”

A comfortable facemask that doesn’t harm the environment

Mari seems to love challenges herself. Working for Mission Zero and studying at the same time is definitely one. No problem for Mari, who enthusiastically keeps sailing on: “When the two PFT teams complete their research and have propositions about be the best material and when the filter for the mask is designed, I will dive into research to analyze the users’ needs to make sure that at the end we will design a comfortable mask that will not do any harm to the environment.” To be continued!

Read more about the Industrial Design Engineering programme.