Is the Future of PPE Biodegradable?


A face mask found during a beach cleanup in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. By Brian Yurasits

Since the beginning of the pandemic of COVID19, it is increasingly clear that we will rely heavily on personal protective equipment (PPE) to cope. This has expanded from just the medical field to throughout society. The UK Government has made it mandatory for the public to wear face coverings on public transport including the transport hub, taxi’s, shops, in hospitality, entertainment centres and venues offering beauty treatments. Furthermore, staff in shops, bars, pubs restaurants cafes, banks, estate agents, post offices, and hotels have to wear a mask. This is taken a step further in beauty salons where face masks and face shields are needed, then further again in care homes and the medical sector where full PPE is usually needed1. This has compiled into 1.6 billion masks heading to landfill just in the UK6. Since the majority of these are disposable and one time use PPE, should we be concerned about the disposing of this? The environmental impact is already being shown by the advertisement such as “cut the string” which was formed as animals such as gulls are getting caught in the face mask strings around their legs. Since the PPE is predominantly plastic, it is just a matter of time before it goes into the water supply and starts to pollute the ocean.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation forecasted 40% increased monthly in order to deal adequately. This demand is not expected to decline during the post-pandemic period, whenever that may be, as the demand is predicted for an annual 20% growth from 2020 to 20252. The mask market alone is forecasted to be a $897 billion market. Gloves are made from cheap and durable plastics like PVC or NBR, these have ~500 years shelf life before breakdown. Mark Benfield who works at Louisiana State University teaching plastic pollution and ecology started tracking PPE litter throughout the world by working with multiple colleagues. Wipes, gloves and masks are littering the streets and parks throughout the world in cities throughout Hong Kong, Turkey and Italy (not an extensive list). Since PPE is medical waste it cannot be recycled or reused, thus despite some misinformation, they have to go into general waste. If we don’t start to try to get a handle on this problem then it will develop into an environmental catastrophe.

Potential solutions for this are reusable masks for the public, this allows people to wash and reuse cloth masks. An idea for businesses and the medical sector is biodegradable PPE which is equally effective in protecting against pathogens but is degradable within 2 years in landfill. These have been developed specifically in gloves with Eco Best Technology (EBT) and require biologically active landfills for degradation, meaning the gloves do not biodegrade before disposal and thus can be stored for medical use.

Biodegradable Rate

Information correct as of 27th September 2020.

References:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7341685/

https://remake.world/stories/news/ppe-is-becoming-an-environmental-problem-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/

https://theconversation.com/healthcare-is-still-hooked-on-single-use-plastic-ppe-but-there-are-more-sustainable-options-143940

https://www.globus.co.uk/biodegradable-gloves#:%7E:text=Regular%2520nitrile%2520takes%2520decades%252C%2520if,(depending%2520on%2520landfill%2520conditions).

https://environmentjournal.online/articles/uk-sending-1-6-billion-face-masks-to-landfill-every-month/

Zoe Brightmore
About the author

Zoe Brightmore

Zoe is a volunteer of PPE4People. A recent BSc neuroscience graduate with experience in scientific writing and two new kittens.