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How to reduce and dispose of our PPE waste more responsibly

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The impact of plastic PPE during COVID-19

Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a literal lifesaver during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while this all-important household item has gone a long way to stemming the spread of COVID-19, a new threat has arisen in the form of excessive plastic waste.

With PPE serving such an important role in the fight against the virus, it would be foolish to suggest an outright reduction in usage. The trick heading forwards is understanding how to properly manage and sustain the equipment consumers are wearing.

reduce and dispose of our PPE waste
Figure 1: The impact of PPE on the environment is huge.

This guide will look to do just that. With a focus on the current impact of PPE on the world, will assess how countries can responsibly manage wastage, as well as the safest ways to dispose of the used equipment.

The impact of PPE on the environment

Despite doing so much good on a person-to-person basis, PPE is unfortunately not the best for the world. Let’s explore how much of an impact the sudden influx of plastic has had on the environment.

PPE and COVID-19

Given the sudden and rapid nature of the original outbreak of COVID-19, it was perhaps no surprise that the manufacturing of PPE struggled. Despite that, there were still billions of units produced across the world.

In the UK alone, the NHS was using PPE at an alarming rate, with as many as 748 million items used in hospitals in just a 53-day period at the beginning of the pandemic.

That equated to 14 million pieces of equipment needing to be thrown away on a daily basis.

masks-Aprons-Gowns-Gloves-usage

In order to accommodate this sudden influx of PPE, the government was forced to enact a series of measures which would speed up the process of getting equipment where it was needed most – into hospitals and healthcare centers. These included moves like:

  • Allowing the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities to fast track product safety assessment processes
  • Letting PPE that lacked a European CE safety mark on the market (as long as they still met essential safety requirements)
  • Ordering a public call for any companies who could provide PPE as part of their day-to-day work

Source: MAG Online Library

And while these drastic measures were useful in helping to fight the spread of the virus, the impact on the world was definitely not at the forefront of people’s minds.

This was up by nearly three times the usual figure, which sat at 2.43bn in 2019. But where is all this excess PPE going once it is no longer usable?

Short-term PPE damage to the environment

The sudden influx of so much PPE unsurprisingly had a huge impact on nature across the world. With people unprepared for the management of this scale of plastic, drastic increases in the amount of waste in the natural world has been identified across the globe.

The Spanish region of Catalonia showed similar figures, with an increase of 350% by the end of April 2020 alone.

In just one day (February 24 2020), Wuhan was able to tear through as much as 200 tons of medical waste.

That number accounted for nearly four times as much as the city’s only facility capable of disposing of such waste. These excess levels of wastage are far from an isolated issue. Jordan’s King Abdullah University Hospital (KAUH) highlighted how the amount of PPE being thrown away continued to steadily rise at the height of the pandemic. Their numbers showed:

medical waste pandemic

Looking closer to home, it is really easy to see how this excess wastage translates. British beaches were one of the hardest hit areas. In November of 2020 up to a third of them were littered with discarded PPE.

Long-term PPE damage on the environment

Given how much plastic and other non-degradable materials have found their way into the environment, there are bound to be a variety of long-term issues which will have to come to terms with over the next few years.

With no clear end in sight for the regular wearing of face masks, the UK could experience an onslaught of medical wastage the likes of which it would never have dealt with before.

On a top-level, this would have drastic long-term impacts on a number of environmental factors, such as:

long-term impacts environmental factors plastic
Figure 2: Drastic long-term impacts on a number of environmental factors.

While every continent has contributed to PPE use and wastage in some way, Asia has definitely been more responsible for the plastic influx than others. And it is hard to overlook Asia as the primary force in PPE usage.

Asia is miles ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to the amount of face masks used on a daily basis, with an estimated 1.86bn masks used across the continent on a daily basis. This is more than four times as many as any other region of the globe.

It is perhaps no surprise then that the 10 countries generating the highest levels of waste are primarily made up of nations from within Asia. The same study estimated the following figures for daily national face mask wastage:

Top 10 countries generating highest levels of plastic waste

How to recycle and dispose of PPE responsibly

The sheer scale of PPE wastage looked at might be a little demoralizing for some. But there are steps everyone can take to make the impact of PPE on the world that little bit less extreme.

PPE recycling guidance – how to recycle single-use items

One of the biggest challenges people face when trying to be responsible is understanding what can and can’t be recycled. In the case of most single-use PPE, it’s highly advised not to try and recycle used products.

There are special ways to dispose of PPE equipment. With the threat of accidentally spreading the virus a real possibility, following this specific set of guidelines to reduce risk of contaminating, or others:

  • Place any used PPE in a plastic bag and seal it tightly.
  • Place this bag inside of another bag, and again tie it as tight as possible.
  • Keep this bag in a safe place for up to 72 hours.
  • Send it to your local waste incineration center for disposal.

It’s also important to remember to keep any waste, however well contained, away from children, outside of communal areas and off the streets (in case it’s taken by public waste collectors).

Remember to try and dispose of waste in this manner as a last resort. Consider all options first, and try to see if it’s possible to recycle your PPE with the help of one of the systems we mentioned in the previous section.

Advice for reducing the amount of PPE wastage

While wearing PPE is a must in a lot of situations during the pandemic, that doesn’t mean nobody can’t also be sensible with the usage. Keeping these tips in mind if users are thinking about trying to reduce the amount of PPE being thrown away:

Following these steps users will be able to significantly lower impact on the levels of plastic waste being pumped into the environment.

This article was published in safetecdirect.co.uk

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