During the pandemic, environmentalists have been concerned about disposing of PPE – but there are greener options, says Gary Bicknell.
Although reusable masks are a solution for the public, those working in facilities in the healthcare or similar industries are unable to use reusable PPE equipment. Masks, gloves and gowns can only be used once as they can be contaminated with infection or disease.
However, there are ways to dispose of single-use PPE that guarantee public and environmental safety.
PPE incineration process
In the UK, any infectious waste is incinerated, destroying any potential virus. Hazardous incineration plants often receive criticism from environmentalists, as they are thought to release harmful gases into the atmosphere. But incineration at modern plants can be a more environmentally friendly disposal method than other processes, with heat produced from incineration used to generate electricity.
At some plants, gas cleaning technologies remove harmful greenhouse gases produced through incineration.
EFW (Energy from Waste) plants incinerate waste and use the heat produced to generate energy while removing any toxic gases produced. During incineration, a steam generator is used to recover the heat produced, to be transferred into energy.
Following this, flue gas cleaning technology is used to prevent harmful gases being released. This involves the mixture of gases and unused combustion air being ‘cleaned’ by mixing oxidising unburned gases with secondary air. This minimises greenhouse gas volumes to form a clean and environmentally friendly waste incineration process.
This makes the incineration of disposable PPE an environmentally preferable alternative to landfill.
Yet many facilities that operate with disposable PPE do send this equipment to landfill rather than to an EFW plant for incineration. Despite incineration's environmental benefits, sending PPE to landfill is still the most common method of disposal.
Public health will understandably take priority over environmental concerns during the pandemic. However, when incinerated properly at modern EFW plants, incineration is a safer and more eco-friendly disposal method than sealing PPE in a bag to be sent to landfill.
The advice from the government that PPE should be disposed of after one use is clear, but the methods of disposal are not made clear.
With talk of a ‘new normal’ and a potential second wave of Covid-19 in the UK, the increase in the use of disposable and reusable PPE in healthcare and other facilities looks set to stay for the long term. Disposing of equipment through landfill isn’t a safe or environmentally viable long-term option.
The government must take action to educate facilities that use disposable PPE equipment of appropriate disposal techniques, such as incineration at EFW, which is a safe and environmentally friendly method.
Climate change concerns temporarily took a back seat with the pandemic. However, if the implications of the virus are here for the foreseeable future, governments must intervene to come up with measures that ensure the safety of workers and the public – and which don’t harm the environment.
Reusable PPE suitable for healthcare and similar facilities has been cited as a long-term alternative, yet this could take years to develop, test and distribute. For the time being, incineration as a PPE disposal method ticks the boxes for being a safe and eco-friendly option.
Without further government action to raise awareness of this process and make it logistically viable for facilities, PPE will continue to be thrown away – endangering both public health and the environment.
Gary Bicknell is director at waste management and removal firm A Better Service