Problems related to bio-contaminated plastic waste have significantly worsened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Most personal protective equipment, such as many disposable face masks, aprons and gloves, is made of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic polymers (i.e. plastics). Due to the pandemic use of PPE has increased significantly, as it is not only worn professionally but has become a permanent fixture in society. Apart from keeping a distance of 1.5 metre, wearing a facemask has been part of measures taken to contain the pandemic.
Globally, there are distinct differences between the way these plastics are handled and disposed of. Since these plastics fall under the category “biohazard”, a distinct different approach for their disposal is required compared to traditional plastics such as packaging, and other consumer goods. There is limited understanding about their longer term health and environmental impact. Furthermore, it is likely that other pandemic events similar to the one we are experiencing now will occur in the future and therefore the main objective is to be a “forward facing” project to provide suitable recommendations for the future. A specific problem is the way the general public should dispose of the PPE used.
Therefore, our specific aim is to critically evaluate existing data about the components used in personal protective equipment (PPE). Based on these data possible ways of disposing the waste related to PPE can be proposed. In order to raise awareness about problems related to the use of PPE, educational material (a series of videos) and a technical note will be produced; the first focus will be on the general public, while recommendations to inform scientists, policy makers and industry will be written.
World Health Organization (WHO) modeling estimated a requirement of 89 million medical masks for the COVID-19 response each month and 76 million examination gloves, leading governments to increase the production of plastics by 40% to meet rising global demand (WHO, 2020). Besides for medical purpose, due to increase in demand for online food and groceries during the pandemic, common plastic packaging waste like PP, HDPE, LDPE, PET, and PS is also expected to increase.
Epidemics and global pandemics caused by viruses or bacteria are nearly as old as the humanity itself. The first evidence for an epidemic is from 3000 years B.C. The earliest recorded pandemic happened 430 B.C. during the Peloponiesian Wars. It is also very likely that another event, similar to the one we are experiencing now will occur in the future. However, the present pandemic has altered waste generation dynamics. Therefore, we want this project to be forward looking, we want to provide a simple and useful information for the healthcare professionals and layman public about the various types of face protection, materials and safety levels/effectiveness of protection. Crucially though, we aim to review the current status quo in plastic waste disposal and present recommendations for the best disposal practices and for dealing with biohazards in the future, in order to reduce waste and plastic/environmental pollution and to encourage the use of novel, environmentally friendly materials.
One of the goals might be showcasing a cradle-to-cradle design of PPE, which would include the re-use of the material used for the PPE, as opposed to the cradle-to-grave design used for the current PPE.
As outcomes, we plan to produce educational material (videos), a technical report, and potentially organise a workshop in 2-3 years from now (around 2023-2024). The content, we envisage as follows:
I. Lifecycle analysis of PPE
Calculations on CO2 excess associated with different masks
Effect masks ending up in environment (link to Microplastics project)
II. Non-medical Waste
1) Different Materials for PPE and different requirement
2) Facemask vs faceshield
3) Balancing between safety and effectiveness to costs to masks (countries with limited resources).
4) Effective disposal and clean up of COVID contaminated area and/or materials.
III. Remediation Technologies and Solutions Limiting waste – cradle-to-cradle design
1) Sustainability aspects of different masks, considering things around reusability.
2) Face mask production
3) Social behaviors around PPE
4) New materials to avoid spreading virus
The project integrates expertise from Division IV, VI, VII and CCE and ICGCSD to ensure all required expertise is on board. The project will also strengthen ongoing activities in cooperation with OPCW. The outcome will strengthen IUPAC’s role in the public image of organic polymers, solving environmental problems, and enhancing quality of life on a global scale.
Page last update 23 June 2021