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Two years’ worth of fighting a global pandemic means it’s now common to walk or drive down a local road and see the streets and sidewalks littered with surgical face masks, face shields, or gloves.

This personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential in preventing virus transmission, especially as state and federal mask mandates ease and the world begins to open up again. However, what impact does single-use PPE have on the environment?

A Rise in PPE Waste Resulting From the COVID-19 Pandemic

Demand for single-use PPE increased dramatically when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic in March 2020. People around the world still rely on disposable face masks or other face coverings to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection.

It’s estimated that approximately 3.4 billion single-use face masks or face shields are discarded daily because of the pandemic. Recent studies estimate that the world uses 129 billion face masks worldwide every month – that figure breaks down to 3 million per minute or 50,000 every second.

Before the pandemic, countries worldwide grappled with plastic pollution and the negative implications it has on the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic and the need for single-use PPE have exacerbated this already out-of-control situation.

Is PPE Truly Disposable? Where Does Used PPE Go? It’s interesting to note that many hospitals worldwide struggled to provide PPE to frontline facilities, especially in rural areas that lack resources to deal with this type of emergency public health crisis. Now, it seems there’s an overflow of PPE circulating – and, unfortunately, much of it is ending up in landfills.

While many face mask manufacturing companies include the word “disposable” on their packaging, are single-use masks truly disposable? Let’s break down what materials are used to create common types of PPE:

Classic blue surgical masks: The traditional blue surgical masks have three-ply construction and include smooth cellulose, polyester layers, and melt-blown polypropylene. Most masks contain a metallic nose strip for user comfort. Disposable gloves: Most disposable gloves are made with either latex, vinyl (PVC), nitrile, or plastic. Sanitary gowns: This type of PPE consists of non-woven polypropylene, polyester material, or polyethylene. As you can see, most PPE consists of plastics, which are not easily degradable. Masks, gloves, and gowns made of plastic material may break down into small plastic particles known as microplastics or nano plastics and can spread into surrounding ecosystems.

Additionally, there’s a lack of official guidance for Americans on properly disposing of single-use PPE. Some researchers even suggest face masks entering the environment due to improper disposal pose more threats than traditional plastic shopping bags.

So, what measures can be taken to reduce PPE waste piling up in our landfills?

A Potential Solution: Transforming PPE Waste Into Usable Fuel Several studies have emerged over the past two years regarding pyrolysis and, more specifically, how it may be an effective method to mitigate PPE waste pollution and even convert it into usable fuel.

One 2021 study claims pyrolysis is a cost-effective, efficient, and environmentally friendly COVID-19 waste management solution. Pyrolysis technology can convert face masks and gloves into fuel because they’re made of polyvinyl chloride and polypropylene, two thermoplastic polymers with high oil content levels. The study suggests that PPE waste can easily be converted into valuable products such as gas, oil, and char – categorised as “the constituent of carbon-rich materials that occur in the plastic waste as inorganic compounds”.

A 2022 study published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews proposed a COVID-19 waste management system that mitigates plastic pollution. The system also utilises pyrolysis technology. It’s worth highlighting that this proposed solution reduces the use of fossil fuels by 31.5%. Additionally, the system produces 35.04% fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to traditional incineration processes.

Despite the growing volume of research to support these PPE waste management techniques, it’s unclear whether or not they will be implemented, especially on a large scale.

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Source: Earth.org

Date: 19 April

Posted in News on Apr 19, 2022

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