A New Opportunity to Reduce Environmental Impacts From PPE Use

MUN Australia
Monday, 11 October, 2021


Personal protective equipment plays a vital role in keeping healthcare workers safe and healthy from the daily hazards they encounter.

This has become even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic and seen the use of PPE increase substantially, with a recent study estimating 129 billion face masks and 65 billion examination gloves are used globally on a monthly basis. With this increased use comes the increased prospect of PPE polluting our environment which can take decades, even centuries, to degrade.

The latest data from 2018–19 collated by the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment showed 48,652 tonnes of clinical waste was generated, with 4,046 tonnes going directly to landfill. If not disposed and managed properly, this waste poses a serious threat to wildlife and the health of local communities over decades if released into terrestrial and marine environments. This danger comes from the accumulation and persistence of plastic waste in the environment over long periods, which allows it to enter the food chain. It is clear that new solutions are needed to reduce the impacts of plastic clinical waste.

The switch to biodegradable plastics represents a real opportunity for the healthcare sector to address this problem. Biodegradable plastics are plastics that degrade through interactions with microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae, and are converted back into carbon dioxide and water over a period of months or years as opposed to decades or centuries. Confusingly, biodegradable plastics can sometimes be referred to as bioplastics, which is an umbrella term for plastics that are either biodegradable, made from biobased materials, or both. It is important to note that not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable, while some conventional plastics are capable of this. 

There are several key factors for biodegradation to occur. Firstly a material’s molecular structure (also known as a polymer), rather than the material itself, must be able to be progressively broken down into its basic components by a microorganism community. Secondly, for biodegradation to occur the location where the material is placed must have the right conditions. Temperature, moisture, pH levels and oxygen content are all important environmental factors for the biodegradation of plastics. When put into the right combination of conditions that are friendly to specific microbes, plastics can be consumed and used as food for growth and reproduction by these microbes. Lastly, the microbes need to be able to identify the plastic waste as a food source to be able to start the biodegradation process.

New technology allows organic additives, that attract specific microbes in landfill environments, to be impregnated into the formulation of examination gloves to start biodegradation through a process called mineralisation. Mineralisation describes the degradation of a compound into its mineral components (i.e. carbon dioxide and water) as well as some biomass (i.e. inert soil). Examination gloves in an anaerobic landfill environment will undergo four biological and chemical stages as part of the mineralisation process: hydrolysis, acidogenesis, acetogenesis and methanogenesis. Each stage helps to break down the compounds in the glove into simpler forms until it is fully consumed. As these gloves can only biodegrade in these landfill conditions, the quality and safety they provide is unaffected and matches those of conventional examination gloves.

PPE will undoubtedly remain an essential way to protect healthcare workers from the hazards they face in the workplace. While in the past, the clinical waste generated from the disposal of PPE has represented a risk to the environment new innovations, especially for exam gloves, are able to provide viable options that help reduce this risk.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/desertsands

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