Can you recycle PPE? And what is happening with all the waste PPE during COVID-19

A report, published in June 2020 estimates that every month 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used globally. 

While some facilities are reusing PPE, and consumers are making the switch to cloth reusable masks, for hospital grade PPE, items can only be used once to avoid the risk of spreading infection or disease. So what is happening with the billions of face masks and gloves that are being disposed of every month? 

Waste can be classified into three categories: 

  1. Infectious – contaminated with bodily fluids
  2. Offensive – contaminated but not infectious
  3. Municipal – similar to household waste 

Used PPE is generally labeled as infectious or offensive and needs to be disposed of to prevent the transmission of the disease. The most effective way to do that is to burn it.

In most countries, waste labeled as infectious is sent to hazardous incineration plants. Other types of PPE is either sent to landfill, burnt, or in some cases can be recycled. 

The good news is that a team of researchers have discovered a way to recycle used PPE into renewable liquid biofuel. Items such as gloves, face maks, face shields and gowns are put into a pyrolysis thermal reactor for an hour, converting the material into liquid biofuel. 

But not all PPE is being correctly disposed of. Many countries are recommending or requiring citizens to wear masks when out in public, and it is up to the individual how they dispose of any single-use PPE items. 

As early as March, there were reports that Hong Kong’s beaches were piling up with discarded protective gear, and divers are finding masks in waterways and the ocean.

Not all PPE is considered contaminated either, and companies like TerraCycle offer a recycling solution for single-use gloves and masks. Businesses can purchase EasyPak boxes from their website (AU | US | UK), and once they are full, the boxes are sent back to TerraCycle for processing where the PPE is cleaned, melted, and remolded to make new products.

To minimize the risk of contamination, they are recommending that a box be fully sealed with adhesive tape and stored securely for 72 hours before requesting a pickup, and if any staff are suspected of having COVID-19 to not recycle the material and follow government guidelines.

Check with your local government and waste processing facilities to see if there is an option for you to recycle PPE for your business.

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