The amount of single-use PPE waste generated by the coronavirus pandemic is slowly becoming another global crisis. Thomas Davison-Sebry, chief sustainability officer at Thermal Compaction Group, shares how their innovative device can help to resolve the global PPE waste problem.
More than 12 months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the world remains dependent on the now ubiquitous blue ‘paper’ mask. Globally, more than 129 billion of these single-use masks are worn and disposed of every month — that's 3 million a minute, or 50,000 per second.1
So while medics across the globe battle one pandemic, another is bubbling away — the mountains of personal protective equipment (PPE) waste that will hang around in our natural environment for centuries because, of course, those masks aren't just made of paper. They're also made of polypropylene (PP), the same plastic used for drinking straws and takeaway cartons.
As the world grapples with the impact of single-use plastic in our soil, drinking water and oceans, we're now faced with trillions of discarded masks and the resulting impact on our planet. A recent WWF report estimated that even if only 1% of masks are disposed of incorrectly, 10 million will end up in the natural environment.2
We live in a world where so much is disposable, from surgical masks to shampoo bottles. Our ecosystems can no longer cope with this "take, make, waste" model. This linear supply chain model, whereby natural resources are extracted, turned into products, sold to consumers and used until they are discarded, is long past its sell-by date. It is expensive, represents a gross waste of resources and is hugely damaging to our planet.
To preserve our precious natural resources and reduce the amount of waste our economy must become circular. The circular model is based on three core principles: designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible; and regenerating natural systems. The circular method reimagines how products are designed, manufactured, distributed, repaired, re-used, and recycled. The goal is to minimise our dependence on natural resources, prolong and extend the life of raw materials, and ultimately reduce waste.
At Thermal Compaction Group (TCG), our business is driven by finding innovative ways to support the transition to a circular economy, to benefit society and the environment. We specialise in sustainable waste recycling systems that provide cost-effective solutions to common waste management problems. We have developed a range of products that contribute to the circular economy by reducing waste volume and allowing it to be re-used or recycled. These products mainly focus on processing single-use plastics, thus reducing the amount ending in landfill or at sea.
When the pandemic hit, healthcare providers were faced with an immediate problem. Estimates suggest that hospital trusts across the UK have been using a combined 10 million PPE items a day, most of which are single-use plastic.3 How could they safely recycle the tonnes of PPE they need to keep medical staff and patients safe? TCG set to work to design a solution.
Just a few months later, we created a device that recycles disposable plastic PPE at the source. Hopefully, our Sterimelt system — which thermally compacts polypropylene (PP) and re-engineers it so that it is suitable to make new products — will help tackle the global challenge of what to do with used PPE.
Initially developed to recycle PP surgical tray wraps and drapes in hospitals, we adapted the machine to also recycle medical-grade surgical face masks and other PPE. The device works by heating PP plastic up to 350 °C in 20 kg batches and then thermally compacting it into rectangular blocks that can be converted into pellets to make new plastic products. Each Sterimelt unit can re-engineer an average of 24 tonnes of PP waste each year. As well as reducing waste, the system also helps reduce carbon emissions associated with transporting waste by an average of 65%. The system also results in significant savings on waste collection; clinical waste disposal is very expensive, costing approximately £295–£1600 per tonne depending on waste type, location and the collection service used.
Seven hospital trusts across the UK currently use the device. We have also established a joint venture with Dutch sustainability specialist Greencycl, which will see Sterimelt technology showcased to hospitals across the Netherlands and Europe. Sustainability is an increasingly important priority for the health service in the Netherlands, with 8% of all CO2emissions in the Netherlands produced by hospitals and each patient resulting in seven bags of waste on average.
Many PPE items also include materials other than paper and PP. TCG, therefore, is working closely with PPE suppliers to help them redesign products to make them suitable for processing in a Sterimelt unit. For example, we are collaborating with Hardshell, one of the UK’s first FFP3-grade mask-making facilities, to test the product’s efficiency. We are currently trialling Hardshell’s disposable face coverings through the machine, using defective masks that would otherwise end up in landfill along with other used PPE. The collaboration is helping to reduce waste even during the product’s development stage. We are also working with them to redesign elements of the mask, replacing the elastic ear loops with non-woven PP and the metal nose piece with a plastic one. Collaboration across the supply chain is the best way to achieve a rapid transition to a truly circular economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how poorly equipped we are, as a planet, to deal with our growing single-use plastic waste problem. As we navigate our way through this pandemic, healthcare organisations now have the opportunity to transform the way they manage their PPE waste. By adopting technology that contributes to the circular economy, healthcare providers can lead the way in the responsible disposal and recycling of medical waste. In doing so, they can set an example for many other sectors to follow.