Can PPE Waste Be Recycled?
Feb 17 2021
The advent of COVID-19 has precipitated a raft of changes in our daily lifestyles, including stringent quarantine measures throughout the UK for much of the last year and the compulsory wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE) in enclosed public spaces. But while PPE can be instrumental in preventing the spread of the disease, a less desirable environmental implication of coronavirus has been the mountains of waste that the proliferation of PPE has generated.
Since the vast majority of PPE items are single use only, countless gloves, face masks and gowns are being disposed of on a daily basis. Indeed, the UK government has distributed more than a billion IIR masks ton healthcare providers since the beginning of the pandemic, before the habits of private citizens or other businesses are even taken into account. Unfortunately, these items are generally not recyclable using traditional recycling methods.
However, one Welsh tech firm is looking to provide a solution to the mounting problem of PPE waste. The Thermal Compaction Group (TCG), based in Cardiff, have developed a “Sterimelt” device which is capable of melting discarded plastics down into small blocks, which can eventually be converted into pellets and used to create new products.
A game-changing solution
In general, used PPE items are incinerated in an industrial furnace, releasing significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other damaging gases into our environment. However, using the Sterimelt method, they are heated enough to break them down without destroying them completely. This not only allows us to follow the example set by climate scientists in reducing our consumption of plastics, but also results in a substantial reduction in emissions.
In fact, the makers of the device estimate that they can bring down CO2 emissions by up to 7,500kg for every 10,000kg of plastic that they process. To date, seven hospitals across the UK are benefitting from the Sterimelt technology, but it’s hoped that many more will follow suit in the coming years. On the back of their domestic success, TCG recently exported their first machine to the Netherlands and they are planning to continue an overseas rollout if demand remains stable.
A greener tomorrow
“We hope this will be a real game changer in the way tackle single use PPE, not only for us here in Cornwall but across the UK and beyond,” explained Roz Davies, general manager of one of the hospitals which is benefitting from the Sterimelt device. “The use of masks has grown extraordinarily this year but now we have the option to recycle them, as well as other items such as theatre wraps and gowns.”
But TCG aren’t just limiting themselves to PPE. They have recently signed a deal worth a six-figure sum with the US to develop a similar machine known as a “Massmelt”, which will process plastics into reusable logs. As legislation around depositing waste into the ocean (and discarding plastics in general) continues to tighten, TCG are hopeful that their business model will go from strength to strength. For now, though, they’re content to just be fighting the rise tide of plastic pollution which the coronavirus has indirectly accelerated.
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