The coronavirus crisis is forcing the world to deal with its contradictions. Health care access, social and economic inequalities, air pollution, have a huge impact on the battle against COVID-19. While the virus threatens our breath, it also forces the world to stop and therefore improves the air quality, as Italian sociologist Francesco Morace analysis. If on the one hand, people can see the clear sky in China, on the other hand, we see a massive increase in disposable goods. The disposable market for masks, for example, is projected to grow 8.5% from 2020 to 2030*.

Disposable are convenient and help to reduce the risk of contagious, especially if we take into account that our current linear system is not equipped to provide us with a clean and safe reuse system. However, disposables are designed to be thrown away, and as a result, a significant amount of resources are lost while creating pollution. Bio-designers Garrett Benisch and Elizabeth Bridges from Sum Studio have created Xylinum mask, a bio mask that tackles our dependence on disposables, often plastic-based.


The duo took over to their home kitchen and used bacterial cellulose to create Xylinum mask. The bacterial cellulose is crafted by a common bacteria called xylinum acetobacter, and forms on the surface of the liquid they inhabit.

The bacteria and its cellulose material can grow from a small sample with as little as water, tea and sugar. By “feeding” the bacteria with these ingredients, the designers have crafted a “knitted cellulose fibre” membrane, which when harvested and dried as a flat sheet, can be used as a workable material.

The studio’s mask is speculative, as the material is too tight a weave to breathe through and needs to be waterproofed, however, Benisch and Bridges reference emerging technology that can accomplish exactly this. By placing tiny wax particles within the growth medium, for example, Virginia Tech Wake Forest biomedical engineers Paul Gatenholm and Rafael Davalos were able to force the bacteria to knit around the wax. Once the particles are melted out, the proper holes remain to allow air to pass through.

The mask can degrade into the environment; it allows people to see each other’s facial expressions helping those who rely on lip-reading to communicate and could be grown in people’s homes or hospitals. Way to go: sustainable, inclusive, and democratic!

Watch the video below and learn more.

Ph credit: All images courtesy of Elizabeth Bridges and Garrett Benisch (Sum Studio)

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