Awareness of the increasing levels of waste from fossil fuels has been growing over recent years, but with COVID-19 bringing PPE (Personal protective equipment) into the public spotlight for the first time, what can we do about the waste from this essential kit?
For decades, consumers have been advised to reduce the amount they buy and reuse whatever they can. Recycling was the last resort in this ever-developing process, an attempt to extend the life of the original product. But in late-2019, a new issue began to sweep the world that made the thought of recycling pale by comparison.
With the pandemic wreaking havoc worldwide, millions of people were probably hearing about PPE for the very first time. Until recently, much like phrases such as the ‘R-number’ and ‘social distancing’, PPE was the vocabulary of a specific workplace. Over a year into the pandemic and we see it everywhere: at the supermarket, on public transport and sometimes even within our own homes.
For clarity, PPE is a catch-all phrase which refers to a range of products and clothing, including face masks, face shields, goggles, ear protectors, flame retardant clothing, safety footwear, high visibility bibs, medical clothing such as gowns and coveralls, protective and disposable gloves, and so on.
Frontline workers, from medical professionals to delivery drivers, require a multitude of combinations of disposable PPE. Face masks, face shields, disposable gloves, gowns, and overalls are often single use.
Unfortunately, with growing demand comes the inevitable growth in waste.
These exceptional times have seen the wider public requiring face masks to venture outside and continue some form of daily life. Sadly, we have seen more discarded face masks, single-use gloves and other items of PPE littering the streets. And that’s not the only place single-use equipment is dispose of.
PPE discarded in hospitals is classed as hazardous waste and is, therefore, incinerated to create energy, which in turn is used to power areas of the hospital. This is a controversial action, which on one hand appears unsustainable, but on the other seems the most efficient way of disposing of one-use waste. A recent article from Manchester Metropolitan University evaluates how this continued need to ‘feed the beast’ risks locking the incineration of PPE into place as a sustained method of disposal.
It is a general rule of business that to grow, companies must innovate. But that innovation should not come at the cost of throwing away social responsibility to protect the environment.
Before the pandemic we were doing so well, diverting waste from landfill and recycling it into useful materials to extend its lifespan. There needs to be a greater mindfulness now the world looks to be returning to some form of normality. There will be consequences of our distraction and therefore there must be an understanding of how we can dispose of PPE responsibly, and look to renew the want to recycle and reuse materials whenever and wherever we are.
Eco Innovation support
Feeling inspired or looking for further guidance and support? The Eco Innovation team at the Hub is on hand to help you:
- Review your business to identify key challenges and explore opportunities
- Rapidly develop, evaluate and prioritise potential solutions
- Collaborate with universities to research, prototype and test new eco innovations
- Be signposted to relevant funding and information sources
- Connect to relevant networks and partners
Belinda Carp, Eco-Innovation Advisor
Belinda has extensive experience working with SMEs primarily in the textiles sector. She studied Business Sustainability Management and became a Climate Reality Leader in 2020. More recently, Belinda has specialised in helping companies to develop and implement their sustainability strategies and to communicate their message clearly to businesses and consumers.
She is a thought leader with published material in research, recognised sector publication and blogs. Her passion is in textiles and sustainability, raising awareness of environmental and social responsibility, and educating consumers and businesses about the benefits of developing a more sustainable supply chain.