Single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) demand skyrocketed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and created “PPE wastelands.” One effective solution that some researchers suggest is transforming PPE waste into usable fuel.

Two years’ worth of fighting a global pandemic means it’s now common to walk or drive down a local road and see the streets and sidewalks littered with surgical face masks, face shields, or gloves.

This personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential in preventing virus transmission, especially as state and federal mask mandates ease and the world begins to open up again. However, what impact does single-use PPE have on the environment?

Learn more about the global increases in PPE pollution due to the pandemic and one possible solution that could potentially minimise the negative environmental impacts of PPE waste.

A Rise in PPE Waste Resulting From the COVID-19 Pandemic

Demand for single-use PPE increased dramatically when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic in March 2020. People around the world still rely on disposable face masks or other face coverings to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection.

It’s estimated that approximately 3.4 billion single-use face masks or face shields are discarded daily because of the pandemic. Recent studies estimate that the world uses 129 billion face masks worldwide every month – that figure breaks down to 3 million per minute or 50,000 every second.

Before the pandemic, countries worldwide grappled with plastic pollution and the negative implications it has on the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic and the need for single-use PPE have exacerbated this already out-of-control situation.

ppe wasteIs PPE Truly Disposable? Where Does Used PPE Go?

It’s interesting to note that many hospitals worldwide struggled to provide PPE to frontline facilities, especially in rural areas that lack resources to deal with this type of emergency public health crisis. Now, it seems there’s an overflow of PPE circulating – and, unfortunately, much of it is ending up in landfills.

While many face mask manufacturing companies include the word “disposable” on their packaging, are single-use masks truly disposable? Let’s break down what materials are used to create common types of PPE:

As you can see, most PPE consists of plastics, which are not easily degradable. Masks, gloves, and gowns made of plastic material may break down into small plastic particles known as microplastics or nano plastics and can spread into surrounding ecosystems.

Additionally, there’s a lack of official guidance for Americans on properly disposing of single-use PPE. Some researchers even suggest face masks entering the environment due to improper disposal pose more threats than traditional plastic shopping bags.

So, what measures can be taken to reduce PPE waste piling up in our landfills?

A Potential Solution: Transforming PPE Waste Into Usable Fuel

Several studies have emerged over the past two years regarding pyrolysis and, more specifically, how it may be an effective method to mitigate PPE waste pollution and even convert it into usable fuel.

One 2021 study claims pyrolysis is a cost-effective, efficient, and environmentally friendly COVID-19 waste management solution. Pyrolysis technology can convert face masks and gloves into fuel because they’re made of polyvinyl chloride and polypropylene, two thermoplastic polymers with high oil content levels. The study suggests that PPE waste can easily be converted into valuable products such as gas, oil, and char – categorised as “the constituent of carbon-rich materials that occur in the plastic waste as inorganic compounds”. 

A 2022 study published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews proposed a COVID-19 waste management system that mitigates plastic pollution. The system also utilises pyrolysis technology. It’s worth highlighting that this proposed solution reduces the use of fossil fuels by 31.5%. Additionally, the system produces 35.04% fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to traditional incineration processes.

Despite the growing volume of research to support these PPE waste management techniques, it’s unclear whether or not they will be implemented, especially on a large scale.

Will Pyrolysis Help the PPE Pollution Issue?

There’s still uncertainty surrounding using pyrolysis to manage COVID-19 PPE waste. While the management systems outlined above are seemingly feasible solutions, their widespread implementation may be challenging.

The US is still in the early stages of developing pyrolysis technology. Additionally, due to its infancy, there’s a lack of regulation for it, so it’s unclear whether or not it will help mitigate the global issue of PPE pollution.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) solicited information regarding pyrolysis technologies. For example, the organisation gathered real-world cost, process, design, and environmental data related to pyrolysis technology to support its efforts in developing potential regulations for it.

Aside from this potential solution, other companies are doing their part to reduce PPE waste. For example, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) partnered with Rash’R, an eco-friendly clothing company. Through this partnership, the companies will collaborate to make masks from the plastics that once polluted our oceans and affected nearby marine life.

Additionally, the EPA published a news release with information regarding the proper disposal of PPE during the pandemic. Some tips include:

It’s expected that PPE pollution will remain a growing problem worldwide. Researchers, scientists, and policymakers must collaborate to find effective mitigation strategies and viable solutions to manage COVID-19 waste.

Giving PPE a Second Life

More research surrounding pyrolysis technology and its role in reducing PPE pollution is needed. Still, it seems like this could be an effective solution. It will be interesting to see if scientists can convert old PPE into usable fuels, as this would be highly beneficial.

Until then, it’s highly recommended that people learn how to properly dispose of used PPE to keep the environment, animals, and humans safe.