Here are the companies trying to solve the COVID-19 problem with medical waste
Here are the companies trying to solve the COVID-19 problem with medical waste

Here are the companies trying to solve the COVID-19 problem with medical waste

  • Disposal of COVID-19 medical waste is increasingly burdening our waste and recycling systems.
  • A problem arises when people try to recycle masks that cannot be recycled traditionally.
  • Private companies such as Plaxtil have started to offer recycling solutions that recycle the mesh material.

Disposable masks, fabric face masks, used gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are some of the extra waste which people have created over the last two years as they have tried to protect themselves during the pandemic.

The World Health Organization published one report in February, in which it stated that the influx – tens of thousands of tonnes – of COVID-19 medical waste puts a strain on health waste systems, which can pose both environmental and health risks.

It also affects traditional waste management and recycling systems.

main image by Sue Kauffman

Sue Kauffman.

Lent by Sue Kauffman

“As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, waste and recycling hauliers experienced a clear increase in the amount of waste collected due to the marked increase in pick-up orders and the explosion in disposable PV.” Sue KauffmanNorth American PR director at recycling company TerraCycletold Insider.

Most of these items end up in landfills, she said, but many “well-meaning but misinformed” people throw PPE waste – which cannot be recycled by traditional means – in their recycling bins at the forefront, hoping it will be recycled.

“This is a counterproductive practice known as ‘wish cycling’, and it leads to blockages in machines, which translates into loss of time and otherwise recyclable material,” Kauffman added.

Several companies like TerraCycle offers solutions for PPE recycling, and Kauffman said demand for these services has increased over the past two years.

The problem is that PPE ends up in traditional recycling bins

Pete Keller, Vice President of Recycling and Sustainability Republic Servicesa waste and recycling company for businesses and homes working in 47 statessaid several rags and disposable masks, gloves and home COVID-19 test kits end up in the trash and recycling streams these days, though he does not have data on exactly how much.

“We went from seeing almost nothing of that type of material to seeing it show up in some of our recycling streams,” he said. “When you think about what’s in the bin, we do not sort it. But it’s clear that there is an increase in that type of material.”

Total waste generation is about 3% to 4% higher than pre-pandemic levels, with commercial waste close to pre-2020 prices, Keller said. Household waste had risen by about 25% and commercial waste had fallen by 35% in the early days of the pandemic.

Republic Services does not recycle masks, gloves or COVID-19 tests, but Keller said any cardboard packaging that comes with these items can probably be recycled.

PPE can contaminate other recyclable materials, he added. Recycling machines are calibrated to process specific items such as glass, paper, cardboard and plastic and are not equipped to handle overlapping objects such as masks. Kauffman said these pollutants – like other non-recyclable items that end up in recycling bins inadvertently – can clog or damage machinery, which can be costly for municipal recycling programs.

There are also fears that the PPE, which has been exposed to COVID-19, could infect frontline waste management workers who may not be properly protected to handle hazardous waste, Kauffman added.

Some companies offer solutions for PPE waste

Though mask mandates are revoked across the country they are still needed in some situations, e.g. flying or use public transportation and people still choose to wear them in other situations. So PPE waste will continue to rise.

Several private companies offer solutions for recycling these items. French company Plaxtil recycles masks and other substances by transform them into a plastic-like material that can be molded into many different objects. British company ReFactory launched Recycle the maska program that recycles disposable masks, gloves and visors for plastic sheets.

TerraCycle’s EasyPak recycling systemsranging in price from $ 128 to $ 293, is designed for property and facility managers to get rid of disposable masks, disposable gloves and safety equipment.

The company’s PPE Zero Waste Boxes, starting at $ 88, are available for individuals, institutions or companies to recycle masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes and other items. Kauffman said users fill the box with the waste and send it back to TerraCycle using a prepaid label, and the items are separated by material type and treated. There was a 145% increase in sales of Zero Waste Boxes, which solves PPE year-over-year from 2019 to the start of the 2020 pandemic in Canada.

bales of recyclable material behind a worker

A TerraCycle worker packs a packet of PPE.

Lent by TerraCycle

“The resulting recycled material is used by third parties to manufacture a range of new products,” Kauffman said. These products include outdoor furniture and patio, plastic shipping pallets, storage containers, pipes for construction applications and more.

COVID-19 PPE waste ground in a box

The resulting material made of PPE.

Lent by TerraCycle

Research published in Science of the total environment in 2021 proposed that disposable meshes can be converted to sidewalk bases and sub-bases, as mesh materials can improve ductility, flexibility and strength.

“Not recycling and allowing otherwise usable materials to become waste is just that – a waste,” Kauffman said. “By reusing otherwise non-recyclable material, we are able to capture and reuse material destined for landfills, recycle it into a form suitable for producers, and eliminate the need to extract new raw material.”

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