UK hospitals recycle disposable PPE
The Covid-19 pandemic has created a mountain of plastic waste, as healthcare workers don new personal protective equipment every day to fight the disease.
The UK government alone has sent more than a billion Type IIR masks – the type most commonly used in healthcare facilities – to providers since the start of the pandemic.
These single-use masks are largely made from plastic, which can take hundreds of years to break down. This is a big blow to a health service which last year launched a national campaign towards sustainability, pledging to reduce its use of single-use plastics and its carbon emissions.
But some suppliers believe they have found a solution to this growing problem. Organizations including the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust are recycling their disposable masks into material that can be used to make new products like bottles, trash cans and furniture.
Previously, these masks would have been intended for incineration, releasing carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions into the atmosphere.
Behind this technology is a Cardiff-based Thermal Compaction Group (TCG), which has so far sold its patented “Sterimelt” devices to seven hospital trusts in England. These devices heat polypropylene plastic up to 350 degrees Celsius and compress it into rectangular blocks that can be sold and converted into pellets for new plastic products.
Although the firm does not currently recommend using its machines to treat contaminated waste, the heat from the devices causes the blocks to come out in a near sterile state.
In addition to plastic recycling, the technology can have a significant impact on the carbon emissions of trusts, reducing the volume of waste that must be transported off-site. The company estimates that for every 10,000 kilograms of waste handled by Sterimelt, hospital trusts will save 7,500 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions.
“We hope this will be a real game-changer in the way we approach single-use PPE, not just for us here in Cornwall, but across the UK and beyond,” said Roz Davies, Managing Director recently. from the Royal Cornwall Care Group. Press release. “The use of masks has increased dramatically this year, but now we have the option to recycle them, along with other items such as envelopes and theater dresses.”
TCG, which has been refining its technology since 2003, says interest has exploded in recent years. CEO Philip Davison-Sebry told me, “When you have people like David Attenborough highlighting the potential crises in the world with global warming, it brings a lot of issues that we’ve been aware of for many, many years to come. the front line. “
Although TCG’s technology is currently found in a relatively small number of organizations, the company has high hopes for its widespread adoption in healthcare services nationwide and beyond. Thomas Davison-Sebry, Head of Sustainability, told me: “We have just exported one of our units to the Netherlands, our first export for Sterimelt, and we have received requests from Australia, New -Zeeland, Canada and South Africa. We even just recently had one in Hawaii.
The company recently made a six-figure deal with the US Navy for a similar thermal compaction device called Massmelt, which primarily converts plastic waste into logs that can be pelletized and made into new products. With new regulations restricting the waste ships can dump in the ocean, the company believes demand will only grow for their device, which they hope to eventually clear for manufacturing in the United States.
Thomas Davison-Sebry told me: “People are more likely to exercise a duty of care because they have a responsibility for their waste. Times are changing and I think things are moving in the right direction.
Looking further into the future, the TCG team believe that its Sterimelt technology and other similar devices will ultimately be used to create true circular economies within hospitals, where waste is converted into material that can be printed in 3D in medical equipment.
Thomas Davison-Sebry said: “At the moment we understand that the 3D printing market is not quite there yet, but it might be someday. And if we can help get things done, and again bring more stuff in-house, like hospitals maybe one day being able to 3D print plaster casts … that would be a really good solution to help achieve that. also. “
For now, the company is happy to make a dent, however small, in the mountain of plastic waste that has accumulated over the past year. Thomas Davison-Sebry told me, “Covid-19 has actually brought to light a lot of these issues. Masks, for example, are classified as single-use disposable products. Now, that is no longer the case. There is a solution, and it is the one that can be put in place and at the source for a totally circular economy.