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Recycling process developed to tackle mounting Covid-19 PPE waste

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A PPE manufacturer has developed a new process that turns its used product into an oil that can then be repurposed to make new products or fuel.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the amount of PPE being produced and used has soared. An estimated 8.4 million tonnes of plastic waste has been generated from 193 countries including respirators and masks that have been thrown away, the majority of which ends up in landfill or, in some areas, the ocean.

Globus Group, a UK-based firm that makes PPE, has teamed up with researchers at Heriot-Watt University to develop a new process that can turn used PPE into a secondary raw material called pyrolysis oil, which can then be refined into commercial products such as new PPE products or fuels.

The project, which aims to create a robust circular economy approach for plastics, will run for two years.

Globus Group said it had produced one billion medical masks and 300 million FFP respirators per annum for healthcare trusts across the UK since the pandemic started. The manufacturing process currently results in 7g of waste material per medical mask.

The new process uses a machine to heat and compact the plastic polypropylene into large, reusable blocks. These are then collected and processed, providing raw materials, which Globus Group can use to make new PPE products – reducing PPE waste by an estimated 85 per cent.

Dr Aimaro Sanna, an assistant professor at Heriot-Watt University, said: “We will be working closely with our commercial partner Globus Group to develop a bespoke process that will be applied to PPE plastic waste that cannot currently be recycled mechanically due to various technological, economic or ecological reasons.

“As the world strives to reduce its landfill, ocean impact and carbon emissions, this project is a significant step towards addressing the increased waste generated during the global pandemic.

“Initially the research will help to recycle over 100 tonnes of product generated by the manufacturing process every year – the equivalent to 10kg of waste every hour. However, our hope is that this new process will be adopted more widely.

“Many countries have been unable to process their plastic waste PPE properly. Our groundbreaking research aims to address these challenges providing an exemplar technique for application globally.”

Group CEO Haraldur Agustsson said: “Placing environmentally green materials, technology, sustainability and recycling projects at the heart of our future strategy and investment is now key to our goals moving forward.”

Last year, Australian researchers found that disposable face masks could be recycled into a material that can be used for building roads.

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