Innovators and entrepreneurs across the world are pioneering solutions to address the pandemic related plastic waste explosion.
The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to undo decades worth of progress achieved by the recycling industry in tackling global plastic pollution.
Demand for plastic has risen, with the production of surgical masks, medical gowns, face shields, safety glasses, protective aprons, plastic shoes and gloves now proliferating. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 1,6 million tonnes of plastic were generated globally, according to a study (‘Covid pollution: impact of Covid-19 pandemic on global plastic waste footprint’) conducted in February 2021.
The mentioned PPE (‘personal protective equipment’) is manufactured from single-use plastics.
These are not biodegradable and liable to contaminate oceans, threatening to entangle and subsequently suffocate wildlife living in aquatic areas.
Reusable medical gear
A Mexican entrepreneur has developed a range of reusable PPE to tackle the Covid pollution problem. The intention behind her product is not only to limit the amount of single-use medical wear destined for incineration, landfill or waterways but also to help curb virus spread within local populations. (Disposable PPE does not only have an adverse environmental impact but could serve to spread the Covid-19 virus, seeing as it can survive up to three days on plastic surfaces.)
According to Tamara Chayo, the 21-year-old chemical engineering student who pioneered the green PPE solution, a doctor can wear these ‘green’ garments up to 50 times without the material losing its protective capabilities. Usually, a doctor has to switche out plastic gowns containing PPE four times within the course of a day-each garment envisioned by Chayo therefore saves 200 plastic items from being incinerated or dumped on landfills.
After 50 wears, the reusable medical apparel can be returned to MEDU Protection, Chayo’s medtech company, which then disinfects it and converts it into cotton scrubs and bags for packaging its products. In order to ascertain the status of their PPE, medical professionals can track each wash via smartphone due to embedded QR technology contained in the gowns.
MEDU Protection plans to export its product line to the US and France, thereby reducing hospital PPE spend by 90%.
“We’re not just making medical apparel, we want to create a movement for a greener medical industry”, Tamara Chayo said.
PPE sourced bricks
Biomedical pandemic waste is also being processed for construction.
From Britain to India, entrepreneurs are investing in the conversion of PPE into everything from toolboxes to bricks.
Cardiff based green business Thermal Compaction Group (TCG) converts hospital gowns, masks, hairnets, tray wraps and ward curtains into plastic bricks.
Said plastic can be used to craft yarn, 3D printer filament and chairs, amongst other things.
“It takes what’s designated as a single-use product and actually turns it into a multi-use product,” said TCG managing director Mat Rapson.
TCG’s Sterimelt and Curtainmelt machines melt down PPE at 300°C, killing pathogens such as Covid-19.
According to TCG’s managing director Mat Rapson, for every 10,000 kg of material processed by the bespoke machinery, 6500 kg of carbon emissions are saved.
Currently, five UK hospitals have placed orders with TCM, with more following. The company is also in talks with distributors in other countries such as Hungary, Canada and Australia.
Indian entrepreneur Binish Desai is charting a similar path.
Popularly dubbed as ‘The Recycle Man of India’, Desai has developed a method to turn PPE into bricks that are more durable as well as economically viable than conventional offerings.
These new bricks, used for building low-cost housing and schools, are made from disinfected and shredded masks and other PPE mixed with paper mill waste and binder.
The founder of Eco-Eclectic Technologies, whose story is being turned into a film by a major Indian production company, is looking to expand to Britain, the United States, Canada and Brazil.
Desai wants to promote India as a global leader in zero-waste technology.
“Attitudes are changing – absolutely,” he said. “The pandemic has made us far more aware of how much waste we’re generating and that it’s not sustainable.”
The scope of the Covid-19 plastic crisis
According to a study contained in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, each month, since the onset of the pandemic, 129 billion disposable masks and 65 billion disposable gloves were generated.
75% of Covid-19 related plastic waste- ranging from biomedical waste to commercial packaging-is set to end up in landfills or marine environments, the UN finds.
Carbon derived single-use plastic production accounts for the emission of a significant proportion of greenhouse gases.