Throughout the pandemic, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), especially face masks, has become part of our daily lives. On top of this, there is an even greater demand for PPE within the health care sector, with health care staff often being required to also wear gowns, gloves and goggles when interacting with patients. The vast majority of PPE is made from plastic such as polypropylene and, according to a recent BBC article, since the start of the pandemic about 8.4 million tonnes of plastic PPE waste has been generated from 193 countries. At a time when people around the world are increasingly concerned about the environment, this problem needs addressing sooner rather than later.
A new research partnership between Heriot-Watt University and PPE producer Globus Group is gearing up to address the problem head-on. A new recycling process is being developed based on thermal heating technology, where a machine heats and compacts the polypropylene into large, reusable blocks, which are then processed into pyrolysis oil. The resultant oil can be used in processes to make new PPE products.
The initial aim of the project is to help recycle the large amounts of plastic PPE waste generated by Globus Group’s PPE manufacturing process every year, and it is thought that the amount of PPE waste could be reduced by around 85%. However, researchers hope that the process could be applied more widely in the future, particularly in other countries that have no way of properly processing their plastic PPE waste.
Whilst restrictions are beginning to lift in the UK, the need for PPE will surely continue. This research into an efficient way to recycle plastic PPE therefore comes at an opportune moment and we look forward to seeing how it develops.