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Disposal of PPE

August 2020: Due to the pandemic, the use and disposal of single use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has risen to unprecedented levels. It poses significant risks to environment and human health and could intensify pollution from plastics. New innovative methods for reusing disposed PPE will be needed in conjunction with increased waste management capacities.

Information

In the wake of Covid-19, the amount of disposed PPE has reached unprecedented levels. PPE is generally for single use to protect communities of health and frontline workers. Many workers had previously not needed to regularly use PPE (e.g. care workers); hence there are significant knowledge gaps around generation and disposal of medical waste. The main material for PPE is non-woven polypropylene and disposed PPE is classified as clinical or hazardous waste which is normally incinerated or buried in appropriately certified landfills. As such, inappropriately disposed PPE is becoming a major source of pollution and significant threat to environment and health, and correctly disposed PPE is stretching the capacity of medical waste disposal facilities.

Implications and opportunities

Poor waste management of disposed PPE often leads to it reaching landfills or being incinerated, in turn, this can lead to an increase of plastic pollution and poses significant threats to the environment. It can also cause water pollution and blockage of sewer pipes or water treatment plants.  In addition, incorrectly disposed PPE increases the risks of infection for waste pickers and collectors which can lead to further disease spread, particularly in vulnerable communities. New innovative uses of disposed PPE will be needed to combat pollution from PPE, such as using disposed PPE as feedstock for biofuel via pyrolysis. In addition to new uses, waste management capacities and knowledge about PPE disposal should be increased, particularly in rural areas where PPE use was previously less common and knowledge arounds PPE disposal remains limited.

Limitations

New uses for PPE are suggestive measures and serve as proof of concept to address the anticipate problem of PPE in landfills. More research will be needed to test the feasibility and economic viability of such measures.


Sources

Jain, S., Yadav Lamba, B., Kumar, S., & Singh, D. (2020). Strategy for repurposing of disposed PPE kits by production of biofuel: Pressing priority amidst COVID-19 pandemic. Biofuels, 1–5. doi:10.1080/17597269.2020.1797350

Kuvheya, A., (2020). Why PPE’s waste disposal should be a priority. Retrieved from: https://www.herald.co.zw/why-ppes-waste-disposal-should-be-a-priority/

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.