Can we recycle our PPE?
Is PPE Recycling Possible?
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the requirement of PPE soared. As most PPE used for the protection against pathogens is single-use, the amount of PPE waste generated has increased tremendously. The problem with PPE waste is that it should be disposed of properly. Now, the question arises, can PPE recycling take place? Let’s explore that in this article.
PPE Recycling - A Viable Option?
In waste management, there is a concept of 3 Rs, namely Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Earlier, PPE was used in industrial workplaces, mines, labs, and other related places. But, when the COVID-19 pandemic stormed the world, the demand for PPE increased. Government regulatory agencies made respiratory protection PPE-like face masks compulsory. Moreover, stricter rules & regulations have ensured that people have donned PPE at workplaces. This has potentially ruled out any chance of reducing the use of PPE.
Many PPE is single-use in nature. Most hand protection PPE like safety gloves and respiratory protection PPE like N95 respirators and KN95 respirators are disposed of after they are used. In the case of more than 40% PPE, reuse is nearly impossible. This leaves us with the option of PPE recycling.
Find out the difference between N95 and KN95 respirators.
PPE recycling is the only viable option left. But, you may wonder is it not worth disposing of them by incinerating or in landfills? According to the WHO, more than a whopping 100 billion face masks are used by humans per month! This is only the number for face masks. Can disposal be a viable solution? No, it isn’t. Instead, if disposed of untreated, this PPE waste can re-enter our system to potentially harm us. It has been found that if disposed of wrongly, they can cause soil and water pollution. So, we really have been left with PPE recycling.
Is PPE Recycling possible?
It is to be noted that we really don’t have the resources to fully recycle billions and trillions of PPE waste. Currently, only a small fraction can undergo PPE recycling. Though efforts are made to increase PPE recycling. The process of PPE recycling is heavily dependent upon the material of construction of the PPE. While cloth and paper can be easily recycled, plastics pose a different problem.
It is a known fact that most PPE is manufactured using non-recyclable plastic and other non-recyclable novel materials. So, there is seldom what we can do about them. Currently, we cannot put them under PPE recycling. This is until we have found a unique solution or a way out of recycling or disposing of them.
In some cases, though the materials of PPE are recyclable, local recycling units may not have the necessary machinery to process & recycle these PPEs. Though this problem can be solved, it isn’t quite often easy. The hurdles of bureaucracy and negligence often hinder any progress in such matters. This often leads to PPE disposal instead of PPE recycling.
Most PPE waste is considered medical or biomedical waste, which needs to be pre-treated before disposal or recycling. While currently only a very small portion of medical waste is recycled. This additional PPE waste usually ends up in the landfills or gets incinerated. But, there is a ray of hope.
PPE Recycling - A Way Out
Necessity is the Mother of Invention. Not only is PPE recycling a necessity but also an opportunity to earn money from it. New startups and gritty environmentalists are looking for new ways of PPE recycling to find a way out. This reduces the burden on the existing recycling mechanism as well as the landfills or incinerators where this PPE waste would have ended up.
Even governments are ready to help individuals and organizations who want to contribute their bit to PPE recycling. It is evident that we’re not prepared for the huge volumes of PPE waste, but we can take still take a step. There have been a few victories here and there -
- 27 year old environmentalist from India has successfully developed a PPE recycling process that produces bricks. Used PPE is converted to bricks which can be then used for construction purposes. Also known as the recycle man of India, he has collaborated with a film production house Pooja Entertainments to handle and recycle their PPE waste. If you’re curious, then check out the PPE recycling to bricks.
- Researchers from an Australian University have successfully used discarded face masks in road construction. One kilometer (0.62 miles) of the road can consume up to 90 tons of discarded face masks.
- A company named Plaxtil was successful in converting discarded face masks into wearable plastic visors. Find out more about Plaxtil.
Can we do anything else except PPE recycling?
While using cloth face masks can help in the protection of the environment to some extent, with the current recycling procedures, they still end up in a landfill or an incinerator. If not PPE recycling, then PPE disposal is the only option we are left for. Is it? Or is it not? Another solution could be introducing recyclable PPE that is designed in such a way that it can be disposed of. This change can only occur if the manufacturing companies decide to tweak with their existing manufacturing procedure.
TerraCycle - A PPE Recycling Solution
TerraCycle PPE recycling is different from the traditional recycling units. TerraCycle uses a zero waste box. These services are paid for and can be opted for by localities, societies, and even groups of individuals. This includes the cost of collection and recycling. The collection of PPE waste is done via a zero waste box which when completely full must be sealed and sent back to TerraCycle. Medical PPE waste and homemade face masks are not recommended for this PPE recycling.
Once these zero waste boxes arrive at the TerraCycle facility they are checked in and quarantined. They are also weighed at their arrival. It is then sent to the recycling facility. Here, the PPE waste is sorted and distinguished based on its material of construction. Based on this, they are then sent to different third-party recycling units for their conversion into recycled products. For example, non-woven plastics are recycled back to plastic pellets or granules.
PPE recycling is possible. But the extent of PPE recycling is only a small fraction. Most of the PPE is still disposed of, even the non-harmful ones. There have been steps in PPE recycling, but considering that billions and trillions of PPE are manufactured every month (in the pandemic), PPE recycling is still taking just baby steps. Shortly, we may see PPE recycling becoming a reality.
Do you know which PPE to use? Check out our blog on PPE hazard assessment.
Stay Healthy! Stay True!