Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves and protective clothing play a vital role in keeping healthcare workers and the public safe. However, since the Covid-19 pandemic, the increased use of disposable PPE has raised concerns about the environmental impact of this essential equipment. This article examines the sustainability issues around PPE and potential solutions to balance safety and ecological concerns.
The Scale of PPE Use
The pandemic led to an unprecedented demand for disposable PPE as healthcare facilities sourced huge amounts of masks, gloves and gowns for frontline workers. In England alone, over 32 billion items of PPE were distributed from March 2020 to May 2021. Globally, PPE consumption is estimated to have increased by over 300% in 2020 compared to 2019. This deluge of disposable kit has created a sustainability challenge, as most PPE is designed for single use before disposal.
Pollution and Carbon Emissions
The raw materials and manufacture of PPE require significant resources including oil, natural gas and water. Most disposable items also contain plastics and are incinerated after use, emitting greenhouse gases. Intensive PPE use therefore contributes to pollution and global carbon emissions. There are further environmental impacts at the waste disposal stage, as discarded PPE can end up in landfill or as ocean litter. Face masks have been highlighted as a ubiquitous form of plastic pollution since the pandemic began.
The Need for Sustainable Alternatives
The importance of PPE for safety means that eliminating items like masks and gloves is not realistic. However, there are opportunities to improve sustainability. For example, reusable options made from washable, durable materials could replace many single-use products. Some manufacturers already provide reusable gowns, goggles and masks that can be decontaminated and re-worn multiple times. Such items have a larger upfront carbon footprint but are better for the environment long-term.
Rethinking Materials and Packaging
For essential disposable PPE, materials and packaging can be reassessed. Biodegradable plastics exist as an alternative to traditional oil-based plastic polymers in masks, gowns and gloves. More eco-friendly raw materials like natural latex, cellulose and hemp are also being utilised in some PPE production. Excessive plastic packaging is another target area, as bulk buying in reusable containers reduces waste. Some manufacturers are also now using biodegradable or paper packaging.
Improving Recycling and Composting
Only recycling or composting PPE after use prevents it from directly entering landfills or waterways. Recycling schemes are still limited but expanding for some hospitals and other institutions that use PPE in bulk. If collected and sorted properly, products like paper masks and plastic gloves can be recycled or converted into new materials. Compostable PPE made from natural materials can also be commercially composted where accepted.
PPE undoubtedly helps protect human health but balancing safety with sustainability is now essential given environmental concerns. Though some disposable equipment remains necessary, greener materials, reusable designs and proper recycling can greatly reduce the ecological impact of essential PPE. With innovative solutions, we can continue benefiting from PPE while also protecting the planet.