Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that PPE waste is a growing environmental burden these days. Is anyone working on ways to solve this problem? — B. Jackson, Jewett City, MD
From healthcare workers and teachers, grocery clerks and students, no one has escaped the increased need for personal protective equipment (PPE) the past two years. Though inarguably a critical agent in preventing the spread of disease, PPE has inadvertently created a new “shadow pandemic”—billions of these single-use items now line streets and parking lots and pollute oceans. Globally, it is estimated that 129 billion facemasks and 65 million pairs of gloves are disposed of each month. “Other than burning [PPE], there is really nothing we can do,” says Sander Defruyt, head of the plastics team at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity aimed at eliminating waste and pollution. “It’s designed to be waste.”
The issue isn’t PPE itself; it’s single-use PPE made from non-reusable materials. Designed to be leak-proof and tear-resistant, disposable PPE can’t be washed and reused, since the cleaning process would compromise the protective integrity. Deepening an already astounding waste mismanagement problem, these throwaway items end up as potentially contaminated pollution simply because they have to.
Luckily, the problem has not gone unnoticed. In the medical community, the case for reusable PPE has gained traction as institutions have developed methods and materials to lengthen the lifecycle of protective gear. Burlington Medical, a maker of durable, reusable medical garments, increased production of their healthcare clothing supplies by 500 percent during the pandemic. They use sustainable materials in their process and operate an on-site medical laundry facility to sterilize PPE. Studies on mask filtration by the Nonwovens Institute (NWI) at North Carolina State led to a partnership with NatureWorks to develop new technology that allows for mask reuse even after chemical cleaning. Globally, companies are testing science-backed efforts to improve mask viability without compromising safety.
Those outside the medical community have access to a variety of sustainable PPE options. French company Geochanvre makes 100 percent biodegradable face masks from hemp, including a recyclable band. Change Plastic for Good developed an additive to make plastic biodegradable, now used to create masks, and MEDU Protection offers washable medical PPE that can be returned for disinfecting and conversion into scrubs and bags. EcoGreen Communities offers compostable face masks, reusable gloves and reduced carbon medical aprons.
The most sustainable option is undoubtedly reusable PPE, but the use of plastic and other disposable protective gear isn’t going away anytime soon. Rather than tossing in the garbage, there is a way to recycle some of these items. TerraCycle offers paid recycling services that collect, inspect and repurpose PPE through a detailed process available through their website, and Thermal Compaction Group (TCG) out of Wales has developed a process that re-engineers specific PPE to resell to the plastics industry.
“Plastics are not the problem; the way the human race discards plastic remains the issue,” says Tim Hourahine, compliance manager at TCG. With PPE becoming part of our daily routine, we have alternative solutions to sustain both our health and the environment.
CONTACTS: Specialty Fabrics Review, specialtyfabricsreview.com/2020/11/01/the-pandemic-is-driving-more-sustainable-ppe/; Startup Makes Biodegradable Face Mask – Planet Home, planethome.eco/planet-friendly-ppe/; TerraCycle, terracycle.com/en-US/pages/ppe-recycling.
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