Globe with face mask

Who is tackling the pandemic of waste?

Image credit: Dreamstime

The coronavirus pandemic has generated a surge in plastic pollution, counteracting years of efforts to tackle the issue of single-use plastics. Several recycling businesses are attempting to make a dent in this PPE tsunami. E&T looks at the processes and products these firms have developed.

You see them everywhere. Poking out from beneath piles of yellow autumn leaves in parks. Gently bobbing along streams. Crumpled up on the floors of commuter trains. The sight of pale-blue face masks scattered across the landscape has become depressingly common over the past 18 months. Principally made from plastics, disposable masks can’t be processed through normal household recycling and are either sent to landfill, get incinerated or, as is often the case, end up in the ocean.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. From PPE (personal protective equipment) to hand sanitiser bottles, visors, gloves and takeaway food boxes, humanity has been using plastic with gusto throughout the pandemic.

However, designers, scientists and recycling businesses have been working hard to find better ways of managing this waste and turning it into something useful.

Just how big is the pandemic’s plastic problem? Reliable data on exactly how much additional waste Covid-19 has generated is hard to come by, both globally and in the UK. Yet studies suggest a combination of single-use products and panic buying has led to increased production and consumption of plastics worldwide. China alone produced over 100 billion face masks in 2020 (in February that year, Chinese firms were producing 116 million every single day).

One study estimates that 3.4 billion single-use face masks are discarded daily. Asia (the continent with the highest population) gets through 1.8 billion of them, followed by 445 million in Europe and 411 million in Africa (other regions used less).

Of course, a lot of this waste is correctly and safely disposed of. And, at least in some places, the rise in working from home has reduced the amount of waste generated by businesses and households (UK statistics for the period aren’t available yet). Yet it has also led to a rise in dumping and litter: studies show there was a 300 per cent rise in illegal waste disposal during the UK’s first lockdown.
The pandemic has at best stalled, or at worst reversed, years of efforts to tackle single-use plastics and waste. Yet, as the following examples show, efforts are under way to tackle the PPE plastic problem.

Disposable face masks, PPE, visors and gloves are a particularly difficult kind of waste to deal with. Not only are they mainly made from plastic, but they also come with the real risk of carrying a deadly virus – making them dangerous to process. Unsurprisingly, these items can’t simply be put in your household recycling.

As the examples below show, it is possible for us to recover the waste generated from the pandemic and turn disposable PPE into valuable materials with a long life.

However, with billions of face masks, hand sanitiser bottles, goggles and gloves being discarded every day, governments and businesses will really need to up their game to make a serious difference.

Nevertheless, the following companies have come up with clever ways of sterilising and reusing all that waste.

Plaxtil: makes free school equipment

French firm Plaxtil comes top of the class with its recycling initiative, turning disposable masks into geometry sets for school kids. The bright blue maths kits include straight and triangle rulers and a protractor.

Customers – be they schools, supermarkets, or town councils – pay for a recycling box. The boxes can hold up to 500 masks and any type of mask is accepted (disposable, surgical, FFP2 and so on). Once full, they’re collected and kept in quarantine for at least four days. Next, the mask material is shredded and passed below a UV light for decontamination. It’s then a case of melting and extrusion before the plastic is injected into different shaped moulds. Finally, Plaxtil distributes the kits to schools free of charge.

Waterhaul: turns litter into litter pickers

Cornish company Waterhaul is pick of the bunch with its ReTask the Mask litter picker. The firm already makes litter pickers and other gear from recycled ocean plastic, but the company’s upcycled masks will help prevent more plastic entering the seas.

NHS Royal Cornwall Hospital sells Waterhaul the plastic, which is melted down on site using a dedicated machine (the Sterimelt – see next entry). Waterhaul then transforms this raw material into the plastic components of the 82cm picker.

Since launching in May 2021, the company has produced thousands of litter pickers which are being used by schools and charities on beach cleans across Cornwall.

TCG: Sterimelt machine for hospitals

Hospitals get through vast quantities of plastic waste, an issue which has only been compounded by the pandemic. Traditionally, this would be burnt or sent to landfill. Yet Cardiff company Thermal Compaction Group (TCG) has come up with an effective way for hospitals to do more with discarded masks, scrubs, visors, sheeting and so on.

The Sterimelt machine, which measures about 2m³, transforms loose plastics into solid blocks, which the hospital can then sell on to manufacturing businesses. One use, for example, is as filament for 3D printers. Besides turning the waste stream into a source of revenue, TCG says it can also cut hospitals’ CO2 emissions.

ReWorked: ReclaimTheMask campaign

Recycling business ReWorked has partnered up with Scan2Recycle and retail giant Wilko to create a variety of products from face masks. Dedicated drop boxes have been placed at 150 Wilko stores across the UK where customers dispose of their single-use masks.
On collection, the PPE waste is quarantined for 72 hours before being sterilised and shredded. This material is then heated to 200°C or more in a board mill and pressed into solid sheets of recycled plastic. The boards can be used for various purposes, including building materials, shelters or even children’s furniture that the company donates to schools.

TerraCycle: Zero Waste Box

Global recycling business TerraCycle has also set up a dedicated process to turn disposable gloves, face masks, safety glasses and other products into something more useful. The firm sells Zero Waste Boxes, which customers buy and place around their premises. The firm then collects the boxes, cleans the waste, and melts it into pellets. It then sells these pellets on to manufacturers who can use it in a variety of products – including recycled picnic tables, planters or pallets.

RMIT: Turns masks into road material

Researchers at Australia’s RMIT University have taken the high road with a recent study showing how single-use face masks can be turned into a binder for paving. The material has been shown to perform well in a test environment and meets civil engineering safety standards.

Made from a blend of single-use face masks and processed building rubble, it could provide an effective way of reusing large quantities of PPE. The study’s authors reckon just 1km of a two-lane road could use some three million masks and divert 93 tonnes of waste from landfill.  

Globus Group: turns PPE into oil

Globus Group, a UK firm that manufactures PPE, has teamed up with researchers at Heriot-Watt University to develop a new process which turns used PPE into a secondary raw material called pyrolysis oil. This oil can then be refined into commercial products including new PPE products and fuels.

The process uses a machine to heat and compact plastic into large, reusable blocks. These are then collected and processed, providing raw materials, which Globus Group can use to make new PPE products. They estimate that this could reduce PPE waste by as much as 85 per cent.

Marie Bee Bloom’s biodegradable masks

Coming up roses

What if litter could help the planet? That’s (sort of) the idea behind the Marie Bee Bloom biodegradable face mask. Made from rice paper and cords spun from sheep’s wool, the Dutch design is filled with flower seeds which germinate once the mask is discarded (preferably in your own garden or a plant pot!).

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