Nature and Biodiversity

Why PPE waste is a problem and how to combat it

A man's hand wearing a PPE glove and holding a mask with the ocean in the background, illustrating the potential environmental harm of PPE waste

PPE waste is a growing environmental concern. Image: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash

Phumvadee Wangtrakuldee
Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, AmorSui
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Climate and Nature

  • Global usage of PPE spiked during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend that continues with greater hygiene awareness.
  • However, while PPE products have proven to limit and isolate the chain of infection, they have a hidden environmental cost.
  • Reviewing traditional PPE production and processing reveals a potential three-pronged solution that could help mitigate its environmental implications.

The COVID-19 pandemic surprised the world. It created significant shifts within the healthcare sector and vastly increased demands for personal protective equipment (PPE) to safeguard frontline workers' and patients' health and well-being.

Global usage of PPE spiked during the height of the pandemic, a trend that continues today with greater hygiene awareness and preventative measures against the spread of diseases. However, while PPE products have proven to limit and isolate the chain of infection, they entail a hidden environmental cost that concerns industry leaders and governments worldwide.

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The scale of the PPE waste problem

Over 59 million healthcare professionals require continuous PPE supplies to meet the demands of growing patient populations and industry standards. The scale of PPE demands results in a parallel environmental concern regarding its non-biodegradable plastic components, such as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Most PPE equipment also comprises other plastics that can take up to 400 years to decompose. At the current rate, discarded PPE could quickly saturate existing landfills.

There is no doubt that PPE products are aggravating the plastic waste crisis. The situation worsened with the mass disposal of expiring stockpiles, with supplies outstripping demands as the world emerged from the COVID-19 crisis. Recent reports reveal that the US alone had discarded more than 18 million disposable masks, 22 million gowns and 500,000 gloves. These adverse environmental trends have raised growing concerns among industry leaders and policymakers, prompting a review of manufacturing, utilization and management of recyclable PPE products.

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The traditional path of PPE waste

Tackling the ongoing PPE waste issue requires policymakers to investigate the pain points involved in traditional manufacturing and distribution processes. These should include an evaluation of supply chains and the practices in transporting supplies nationally and via exports. Companies typically break down the linear path of PPE production as follows:

Extraction

PPE production requires a steady supply of raw materials, such as polymers extracted from the Earth. The regular extraction methods commonly deployed can significantly upset natural ecosystems, polluting water and air quality in these resource areas. Extraction operations can directly affect the land, soil, animals, plants and people, which could take years to recover naturally. In rarer and more severe cases, these activities can lead to irreversible damage in the area and the displacement of communities.

Manufacturing and processing

Upon extraction, companies must refine the raw material into workable components suitable for PPE production. Processing plants designated for refining raw components operate with a high energy demand necessary to maintain large-scale operations continuously. These result in the generation of greenhouse gasses as a byproduct, damaging the Earth's protective ozone layer.

The contamination from manufacturing facilities can also spread to nearby tributaries, leading to the rivers and oceans. Populations living near these plants may suffer chronic health conditions from constant exposure to the toxic fumes churned from these plants. These conditions may include severe allergic reactions and respiratory diseases.

Transportation

PPE's traditionally adverse impact on the environment continues with complex supply chains that regularly deliver supplies worldwide to meet healthcare demands. These include air travel for exports and fleets of delivery vehicles running with fuel that release large amounts of climate-damaging components into the environment.

When considering the transportation issue, it is also critical for decision-makers to review packaging solutions. Standard PPE product packaging often comprises plastics, which gradually break down into microplastics. These fine particles have ended up in waterways and the ocean upon disposal. These synthetic materials affect the water quality and sea life. In turn, humans may consume seafood and directly ingest microplastics that lead to additional health problems.

Retail and PPE waste disposal

At the end of the PPE product life cycle end users may experience potential health issues from inhaling, accidentally ingesting or coming into contact with certain toxic compounds, such as PFAs, commonly found in the plastic components of regular PPE items.

Scientific studies have associated PFAs with an elevated risk of endocrine disorders, liver damage and other metabolic and developmental ailments. Aside from the dangers of product use, consumers may also cause further environmental pollution through improper disposal practices. For example, individuals may litter at beaches or have inadequate recycling habits that lead to landfill buildups.

Breaking the cycle

The linear PPE production cycle will continue adversely affecting populations and the environment if left unattended without proper intervention. In the long term, this could result in a rise in healthcare issues, costs and other crises, such as a greater occurrence of climate-related disasters. As the PPE waste concern seems to be a circular problem, businesses, governments and individuals must consider a similarly circular solution.

Addressing the PPE waste problem

Reviewing traditional PPE production and processing reveals a potential three-pronged solution that could help mitigate its environmental implications. PPE producers may consider revising their sustainable policies to include the following measures:

1. Implementing recycling programmes

A clearly outlined and systematic recycling programme will help ensure that PPE materials go through the most sustainable processes to reduce their negative impact on the Earth. These may include workshops and seminars for healthcare workers and the general public.

2. Redefining reusable PPE

PPE producers should consider investing in further research and development that explores eco-friendly alternatives to standard plastic components. These can allow manufacturers to explore safer, longer-lasting products that fulfil industry demand, while still minimizing pollution.

3. Rolling out eco-friendly manufacturing methods

PPE companies may consider replacing fossil fuel combustion practices with renewable energy solutions without harmful environmental byproducts. Similarly, companies could refit supply chain fleets with electric fuel transportation.

On a grander scale, businesses, governmental organizations, environmental groups and individuals must collectively confront the PPE waste crisis's broader impact. By uniting resources and raising greater awareness, communities can progress to ensure that the healthcare industry stays protected with PPE without guilt and undesirable socio-environmental consequences.

How we move forward on PPE waste

Improving the PPE waste management situation requires time, as there is much to do to reverse the PPE waste crisis. This includes allocating new budgets and making administrative and operational changes to the manufacturing life cycle.

However, regardless of that challenge, companies and government bodies must work together to realize the much-needed change. Sustainability is a fundamental concern in global health strategies, with PPE waste as a focal point. By refining PPE strategies, decision-makers can protect patients and the dedicated workforce, while preserving the planet's future.

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