Healthcare is still hooked on single-use plastic PPE, but there are more sustainable options

COVID-19 has highlighted the staggering amount of single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) that medical and healthcare facilities use on a daily basis, and the associated high costs. No one disputes the importance of keeping people well-protected in hospitals, surgeries and care homes. But with more sustainable technologies and products emerging, it seems the medical sector is getting an easy ride as we try to reduce single-use plastic.

Medical PPE includes respirators, masks, face shields, goggles, gowns, coveralls, gloves and more, all of which are made of plastic material and are little-used before disposal. The respirators and surgical masks are commonly made from polypropylene, for example. Since everyday plastic items made of similar materials take up to 500 years to degrade in the ocean, these masks could be around for a long time. Similarly, gloves are commonly made from cheap and durable plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR), making them non-biodegradable with a very long shelf life.

Making its way into nature

Being made from such hardy materials, it is no surprise that increased use of PPE during the pandemic has resulted in more of it making its way into nature. For instance, 70 masks were found within 100 metres of a beach in Hong Kong, with some still looking brand new. This poses the question of how much more PPE has been used during the pandemic to cause this alarming increasing of “PPE litter”?

One NHS trust in Lincolnshire, England, recently released data that puts COVID-19 PPE usage into perspective. Across four hospitals in the trust each day, 39,500 masks, 11,495 gloves, 1,501 gowns, 4,201 respirator masks, as well as more aprons and eye protectors are used, totalling 72,000 PPE items. There are 226 similar trusts in the UK, meaning 10 million or more PPE items are used each day, and most are single-use plastic.

There have been 2.3 billion items of PPE distributed to health and social care services in England from February to July. The same amount of PPE was distributed in the whole of 2019, showing the sheer increase of single-use PPE being distributed.

inforaphic showing the number of different types of PPE distributed in England this year.

Gloves are by far the most common PPE. Chloe Way / data from gov.uk, Author provided

The importance of PPE for healthcare workers is not disputed. However, the UK government has already spent well over £15 billion on PPE for the pandemic, which equates to around £500 from each UK taxpayer. Even then, there are still nationwide shortages, often down to the non-reusability of the equipment.

These shortages have led to the UK buying from abroad, which in some cases has led to further plastic waste. For example, 100,000 gowns bought from China were rejected after not reaching the standard required.

The UK’s COVID-19 home-testing kits recently sent out to collect saliva samples also have lots of plastic. One kit can contain four plastic bottles with lids, eight plastic bags, one elastic band, eight peel-off labels, two lint pieces in a plastic/paper pack and paper/bubble wrap envelope.

Most of this kit has spares of each item, with no instruction on whether spares can be returned or how to be disposed of correctly. This kit was sent to about 14,000 people, which could lead to 84,000 “spare” plastic bags and 42,000 “spare” plastic bottles.

There are alternatives

Many plastic-free or reusable alternatives are now being suggested worldwide to tackle some of these issues. A new report in the journal Science led by researchers from Pew charitable trust and SYSTEMIQ states that nearly 80% of plastic pollution could be resolved by 2040 using current technologies and knowledge.

Examples of alternatives and such technologies which have been implemented, tested or are available include:

* The critical care decontamination system. This is a container made by a company in Ohio which can decontaminate up to 80,000 items of PPE at a single time.

* Scientists at the University of Nebraska are researching whether ultraviolet light can decontaminate masks and respirators.

* Biodegradable gloves are available, which can decompose in landfill in two years

* The Reelshield flip. This is a face visor made from paper board and wood pulp cellulose, meaning it can be composted at home. It is being sold at the same price as plastic alternatives (100 for £150).

These alternatives to disposable plastic PPE could provide options to reduce long-term costs and environmental damage, ultimately helping in the campaign to reduce single-use plastic.

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Chloe Way is a PhD Researcher in Geography and Environmental Science, University of Southampton

This article was republished from The Conversation.com under a Creative Commons license.