The Pandemic’s Wasted Year

PPE Waste & Finding Hope Just in Time for Earth Day 2021

By Sam Yeoman

 

There’s a wonderful American Elm tree that lives right outside the 2nd story window of the glorified walk-in closet that is my apartment in West Harlem, NYC. Each morning when I wake, I’m greeted by its canopy gently swaying in the wind. On particularly sunny mornings, its branches become drenched in the rich morning light and look as if they’ve been dipped in liquid gold. I’ve probably spent too much time gazing at this tree this past year after spending almost every waking second cooped up in my apartment due to the pandemic. And in the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched the tree’s progressive transformation from bare branches to the tiniest of hints of fluorescent green leaf buds beginning to wake from the long, dark months of winter. 

After more than a year characterized by despair, loneliness, and isolation for the majority of the world, today’s Earth Day appears to shine brighter, holding greater meaning compared to Earth Days of years past. With the U.S. vaccination roll out happening at lightspeed, and warmer, sunshine-filled days arriving any moment to the east coast, I caught myself feeling something I had not experienced in over a year…hope. The Elm tree’s newly budding leaves have done well in staving off the heavy feelings of melancholy, reminding me that life is cyclical and that we will not be stuck in the thickets of the pandemic forever. But sadly these inklings of a brighter future were quickly snuffed out after something caught my eye as I peered out of my window to gaze upon my friend the Elm tree one-morning last week. A disposable surgical mask got snagged on one of its branches. There it was, the unmistakable rumpled blue and white face mask furiously flapping in the breeze, a bonafide symbol of the times. The sight of it brought me crashing back down to the harsh reality that the pandemic is still very much here, that there’s still more to endure before we reach the finish line (wear a mask/get vaccinated). It also was a stark reminder of the pandemic’s inherent waste problem—with disposable face masks and other single-use PPE currently flooding the world’s waste streams and polluting our planet. 

Make no mistake, disposable masks are plastic, not paper products. A standard surgical mask is typically made of three layers. The outer layer (blue) is made up of PP Spunbond polypropylene, a hydrophobic non-woven plastic. The middle filtering layer is made of melt-blown fabric, which is made from thin strands of a melted polymer like polypropylene. And the inner layer (white) is made of…can you guess it?…more non-woven fabric made from plastic. These masks also feature either plastic nose wires made of 100% polyethylene or wires made of metal with two elastic ear bands made from spandex or polyester. These are single-use items made up almost entirely of plastic and the world is currently on the verge of drowning in its waste. Surgical facemasks and other single-use PPE do not readily biodegrade and can take hundreds of years to break down. The items also pose a danger of breaking into micro and nano plastics that end up in our soil, oceans, water supply, and even our food. Recent studies have even started seeing evidence that these microplastics are affecting male fertility by reducing sperm count in men across the globe. There are no guidelines on how to properly recycle face masks and other single-use PPE equipment worn by medical personnel and most are destined for the landfill.

The fact that there’s virtually no measures or infrastructure in place to properly address recycling PPE wouldn’t be that big of an environmental concern if it wasn’t for the mind-blowing amount of PPE waste generated over the past year due to the ongoing pandemic. It’s estimated that the world currently uses and disposes of 129 billion disposable surgical masks every month, 3 million a minute, or 50,000 every second. And although we seem to be within a couple of months from seeing a significant loosening of COVID restrictions, PPE and especially face masks are not going anywhere for at least a while. Results from a national survey of 2000 Americans from Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center found that nearly 75 percent of respondents plan to continue to wear masks in public well into the future.

The good news is that as good as humans are at creating problems for ourselves and our planet, we are almost equally good at formulating ways to solve them. As daunting as the pandemic-induced PPE waste situation might seem, there are environmentalists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and sustainability professionals committed to finding innovative ways to responsibly manage and recycle disposable face masks and other PPE and turn them into valuable resources.  

Developed in Wales by the Cardiff-based company, Thermal Compaction Group, specialized thermal heating machines are currently converting used PPE, including gowns, curtains, and single-use masks, into reusable plastic blocks. These blocks are created in under one hour and these machines have been installed in 5 National Health Service (NHS) hospitals across the UK, with 11 other NHS hospitals due to receive the PPE recycling technology within the next several months. The equipment thermally compacts polypropylene, found in various types of PPE, into meter-long plastic blocks, reducing the physical size of a hospital’s PPE waste by 85 percent. These blocks are then collected, processed, and redeveloped into a variety of different products including school chairs and toolboxes. Prior to receiving the innovative PPE recycling machines, medical items like face masks, surgical drapes, and hospital gowns would be shipped out for special incineration. The potentially game-changing recycling technology is certainly a start, but a large-scale integration of the machines is necessary if the UK truly wants to make a dent in the estimated 55,000 tons of single-use PPE waste being generated in the country annually. 

In western India, 27-year-old environmental activist and innovator, Binish Desai, has taken matters into his own hands after experiencing what he calls “eco-anxiety”. The cause of his panic stems from seeing the extent of the PPE waste happening in New Delhi and across India during the pandemic. One of the most populous countries on the planet with 1.3 billion people and climbing, India set public mask mandates and produced tens of millions of personal protection suits for medical personnel since the start of the pandemic. According to India’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), close to 20,000 tons of coronavirus-related biomedical waste were generated between June and September of 2020. Desai’s solution takes used PPE and molds it into bricks that can be used to construct homes and factories. By the start of 2021, Desai had already made more than 40,000 recycled bricks and plans to ramp up production with a goal of creating 15,000 bricks per day. The recycling prodigy was already making eco-friendly bricks from industrial paper sludge prior to the start of the pandemic and his recent PPE recycling initiative adds biomedical waste to his paper sludge mix. To procure the waste, Desai simply placed trash bins outside of hospitals, shops, and apartment buildings where people could easily dispose of their used face masks and other PPE. Desai’s recycling process starts with isolating the PPE for three days. The fabric is then sanitized, shredded, and sanitized a second time. Next, it’s combined with 47 percent paper sludge and a bonding agent and then is pressed by hand into a variety of molds. The bricks weigh around 3 pounds and cost around 4 cents each to purchase. Desai is eager to scale up his PPE brick business and is champing at the bit to work with local governments to convert biomedical waste into large-scale production bricks that could be used to construct roads and other infrastructure across India and beyond. 

Chirag Naik, one of Desai’s clients and owner of a local New Delhi packaging factory, ordered 5,000 PPE bricks to build an expansion to his factory in December. Delighted with Desai’s efforts, Naik expressed that “when sustainability is the need of the hour, I personally believe that such innovations need to become mainstream.” I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Naik’s sentiment. 

Grassroots, bottom-up approaches supporting a circular economy, like Desai’s PPE bricks, are effective strategies for developing countries to tackle various waste management problems, but what about countries like the U.S.? Can our government follow the lead of countries like the UK and India? I think so. I hope so. This is exactly what The SWEEP Standard is trying to accomplish. Industry experts agree that in order to effectively take on biomedical waste management, COVID waste must be clearly defined, various types of waste generators must be identified, quality supply and value chain data must be easily accessible and be suited for intuitive analysis, and large-scale education and awareness campaigns related to PPE usage in both healthcare and non-healthcare sectors must be enacted. For the U.S. the SWEEP Standard aims to work with local governments and private entities across the country and beyond to create a national standard to incentivize sustainable practices for the waste and materials management industry. 

Working with the great minds at SWEEP is just one of the many things giving me hope today.   And that’s what I believe Earth Day should be about, especially this year. Hope. Hope for people. Hope for our planet. Hope that humanity can nip the PPE waste crisis in the bud. And finally, hope that we as a society will fight the urge to fall back into the status quo of pre-pandemic days. Hope is a good start, but we must develop and establish strong verifiable systems within the waste management industry in order to hold ourselves accountable. We must take advantage of the unprecedented disruption caused by the pandemic and create a more sustainable future for our planet. And although hope seems to be in short supply these days, I take solace in the efforts of passionate, creative human beings and private entities working tirelessly to solve our most pressing environmental issues. 

As I finish writing this piece, the aforementioned face mask is still hanging from the tree outside my apartment window, but a thunderstorm is beginning to brew here in NYC—and maybe, hopefully, it will be knocked down and disposed of responsibly. As the optimistic saying goes, “April showers, bring May flowers”. Happy Earth Day.

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