Plastic is a problem – as it currently stands the production of plastic will account for about 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. About eight million metric tonnes enter our oceans each year on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate our marine environments.
The world has been waking up to the dangers of our current plastic use over the last few years. From 2015 plastic bags at supermarkets were no longer free, but would cost 5p to reduce the amount of plastic used unnecessarily. This charge is set to double in 2021. The 2017 BBC documentary series Blue Planet II opened up many people’s eyes to the problems that plastic can cause our environment, and in June of 2018 National Geographic magazine devoted a special cover package to plastic.
Environmental awareness regarding plastic use is on the rise. So what is the new issue? The spread of the Coronavirus strain that emerged in 2019 and rapidly advanced around the world led to PPE becoming some of the highest demand items across the globe. PPE in this crisis has, of course, been a necessity. It is of the utmost importance to keep those who work on the front line well-protected. However, medical PPE such as masks, face shields, gowns, goggles, gloves, respirators and more are made of plastic material and disposed of after minimal use. As more sustainable products emerge, a balance must be made between the safety of frontline workers and the long-term safety of the planet.
One Lincolnshire-based NHS trust released data on the amount of PPE used across the four trust hospitals in one day – 39,500 masks, 11,495 gloves, 1,501 gowns, 4,201 respirator masks as well as additional aprons and eye protectors totalling around 72,000 PPE items. When taking into account the 222 similar trusts in the UK, this number increases to 10 million+ PPE items used each day, with the majority being single-use plastic.
So what can be done? On a positive note, a recent study undertaken by the journal Science led by researchers from Pew charitable trust and SYSTEMIQ states that almost 80% of plastic pollution could be resolved using current technologies by 2040. In the short term, some options that are being looked into are:
- Decontamination by ultraviolet or gamma-irradiation, hydrogen peroxide, spray-on disinfectants and more. Many of these models are in the preliminary stages and due diligence must be done to make sure disinfecting PPE does not decrease its effectiveness.
- Use of biodegradable gloves which take just 2 years to decompose in a landfill.
- Sustainable PPE recycling when PPE is based on a single polymer.
- REELshield Plastic-free visors that are recyclable and home-compostable.
Developing sustainable PPE will be an ongoing task, but a task of vital importance to keep ourselves and the planet protected.
Charlotte Taylor, Marketing Executive, Lab Innovations