PPE Adds to the Rising Waste and Recycling Problem across the Globe

It’s been more than a year after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. And, we are still using those disposable blue “paper” face masks. To meet the demand for essential PPE items including face masks, numerous PPE manufacturers are producing COVID Personal Protective Equipment at a large scale. However, what we haven’t pictured is the after-effects of pandemics – because the face masks that we use to reduce the spread of infection are not just papers. They are polypropylene too! It is the same plastic that is used for making drinking straws and ketchup bottles.

As the world is coping with the excess of plastics in its soil, water bodies, and even mountains, we are faced with another heap of a problem – trillions of disposed face masks with practically no solution to recycle them.

While the COVID-19 pandemic and its several byproducts were unanticipated events, without an innovative strategy and collective action, we are going to fight personal protective equipment post-COVID-19 era.

Prioritizing Safety amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 was officially labeled a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, by the WHO. By April, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has adequate knowledge of the transmission of the virus to advise people to wear a face mask or a protective face covering and practice proper hand hygiene.

About 7.8 billion people across the globe sought out PPE like face masks and latex gloves to protect themselves and others against the infection.

While some face masks like KN-95 were highly in demand and short supply, many managed with homemade cloth masks or gardening gloves. Due to this, there was increased production and supply of PPE for both frontline workers and the general public.

Homemade masks were cheap to manufacture and quickly delivered by the pallet and carton-load to be used and disposed of when needed. Furthermore, they are meant for single-use only. Due to the characteristics of the virus and uncertainty of its lifespan on surfaces and outside the body, one-time-use products became essential for sterility.

However, no one could have prepared for the heaps of waste that the improper disposal of these products would generate. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has reported that hospitals in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, manufactured over 240 tons of disposable plastic medical waste like face masks, gowns, and gloves every day during the peak of the pandemic which is 6 times more than the daily average before the pandemic.

Due to the fact that almost all COVID personal protective equipment is designed with non-recyclable plastic, governments across the globe realize that almost all PPE’s are going to pile up. Plastic was used to create durable masks, however, it is going to impact the environment as those plastic-woven blue face masks will be dumped into the ocean, land, or hazmat repositories. So, it is imperative to come up with a way to address this problem.

Knowledge of PPE is Essential

Understanding why we are unable to recycle these simple masks, sanitary gowns, and disposable gowns helps in resolving larger issues.

  • Surgical face masks (classic blue) – Wit 3-ply construction having smooth cellulose, “melt-blown” polypropylene, polyester layers, and a metallic nose strip.
  • Disposable gloves – Made of plastic, vinyl (PVC), latex, or nitrile
  • Sanitary gowns – Made of Non-woven polypropylene, polyester, and/or polyethylene.

However, America’s existing recycling system, known as “single-stream”, is not equipped to manage any of it.

The main part of single-stream recycling, the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), uses conveyor belts, air jets, slides, grinders, and magnets to categorize an all-inclusive stream of plastics, aluminum, paper, glass, etc.

But, when it comes to face masks, even the most accurate MRFs cannot separate the multi-material production. Even gloves and gowns are made up of a collection of plastic materials like those used in plastic bags, polyesters, vinyl, etc. As these are cheaper to produce and jam MRF machines, many operators prefer to deposit in the landfill.

While recycling plastic is still a major concern in the USA, the increased production of COVID Personal Protective Equipment has only added to the concern.

Assuming that the global pandemic will end 18 months later after its declaration in March 2020, the world will have used about 2.32 trillion face masks and with existing systems in place, less than 1% of plastic will have been recycled.

So, you already know where all the personal protective equipment will go!

New Challenges Posed

With the current system of recycling, plans, and guidance, it becomes a major challenge to recycle the PPE. Moreover, the WHO hasn’t issued any updated guidelines for COVID Personal Protective Equipment disposal but reiterates that medical PPE is for one-time use for a purpose. Also, there is no closed-loop system for recycling masks. So, there’s no other option than to burn PPE. It is simply designed to be a waste.

As there is a lack of centralized guidance, there is confusion on where to dispose of used COVID PPE which has resulted in improper handling methods. Water utility authorities around the country – California, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas, among many other states, are urging people to avoid flushing face masks down the toilet.

Research suggests that there will more quantities of plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. So, as the PPE manufacturers in the USA are generating more PPE, they are unintentionally generating “new” type of plastic pollution. Therefore, environmentalists fear that there will be more face masks than fishes in our oceans.

According to the latest WWF report, it was estimated that if only 1% of face masks are discarded improperly, 10 million will be disposed of in the natural environment every month.

So, we as responsible human beings can address this issue by doing sustainable thinking and collective action.

Finding New Ways

Now the time has come to take actions to reduce the use of single-use plastics. By following the 5Rs of waste recycling, businesses can emerge as a leader in the sustainable future after COVID-19.

  • Refuse
  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Repurpose
  • Recycle

People should avoid using disposable Personal Protective Equipment as much as possible. Many PPE manufacturers in the USA are producing reusable face masks and other PPE items to flatten the PPE demand curve to some extent.

PPE Meets Extended Producer Responsibility

We are living in a society where everything can be discarded, from plastic containers to surgical masks and gloves. Companies need to break the status quo and take responsibility for their product’s lifecycle. Instead of a linear supply chain (Take-Make-Waste model), companies can adapt to a circular economy where they can design out waste and pollution, use products and materials, and regenerate natural systems.

Just like COVID-19, plastic, waste, and PPE pandemics cannot be addressed overnight. Companies need to focus on sustainability, responsibly discard waste, and recycle as much as possible to reduce the generation of PPE waste.

Wrapping Up

We are already fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic with the help of PPE, however, with the excessive use of PPE, we will soon be fighting against environmental problems post-COVID era. So, it’s important to take necessary measures to mitigate the potential environmental risks that are going to be caused by improper disposable COVID personal protective equipment.

Using reusable or biodegradable PPE items such as face masks can help address this problem significantly. If you’re looking to buy reusable face masks or other PPE items, then it is wise to buy from PPE manufacturers in the USA. They can offer your quality products at an affordable price range.

Co-Defend is one of the leading bulk PPE suppliers in the USA that offers high-quality PPE at reasonable pricing. Contact us to place your order today!

Know the Real Value of Personal Protective Equipment Amid Covid-19 & Stay Protected

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • No products in the cart.