Plastic PPE to be given new life as part of ‘ground-breaking’ research project

·2 min read

Plastic PPE waste is to be given a second life as part of a new research project.

Since the start of the pandemic, about 8.4 million tonnes of plastic PPE waste, including respirators and masks, have been generated from 193 countries, and the majority dumped in landfill.

Now a partnership between Heriot-Watt University and PPE maker Globus Group will recycle the rubbish in a world-first collaboration.

Dr Aimaro Sanna, assistant professor in chemical and process engineering at the Edinburgh university, said: “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.”

At the moment much of the plastic PPE waste cannot be recycled mechanically, but the project between the university and the manufacturer will turn used plastic protective equipment into pyrolysis oil, which can then be refined into new commercial products like new PPE products or fuels.

The project will run for two years, and Dr Sanna said: “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 ground-breaking research aims to address these challenges providing an exemplar technique for application globally.”

Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, Globus Group has been producing one billion masks for healthcare trusts across the UK, but the manufacturing process currently results in 7g of waste material per mask.

It is hoped the project will develop a process for cost and energy efficient recycling and repurposing of the PPE waste.

As part of the scheme to cut down on PPE waste, Globus Group has implemented thermal heating technology at its Alpha Solway factory in Golborne, near Manchester.

The machine heats and compacts the plastic polypropylene into large, reusable blocks. They are then collected and processed, providing raw materials to create new PPE products and reducing its waste by around 85%.

Pete Lee, head of quality at the company, said the machine “is a fundamental part of our process to re-purpose and utilise waste material to achieve a circular economy” and said the technology will “will be a real game changer in the way we tackle our PPE waste”.

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