A review of existing evidence has concluded that the threat to the environment posed by billions of plastic-based masks, gloves and gowns used during the coronavirus pandemic can be largely averted using a simple hour-long process.
The review found that the polypropylene used to make the equipment can be broken down into biofuels using a high-temperature chemical process called pyrolysis. These biofuels can then be used in place of non-sustainable fossil fuels.
Several transport companies in the UK already run biofuel-powered buses, and the Government has pledged to make the E-10 biofuel – petrol that contains twice as much bioethanol as the E5 unleaded that is currently sold in the UK, 10 per cent – available to all motorists by 2020.
Plastic-based PPE would otherwise take decades to decompose in landfill sites, and poses a significant risk to marine life once it gets into the sea.
The new study, published in the journal Biofuels, argues that breaking down the plastics in PPE for a period of 60 minutes at between 300 to 400 Celsius would be sufficient to obtain the fuel.
Dr Sapna Jain, who led the research at the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in India, said: “Presently, the world is focusing to combat Covid-19. However, we can foresee the issues of economic crisis and ecological imbalance also.
“We have to prepare ourselves to meet the challenges which are forcefully imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, so as to maintain sustainability.”
Biofuels are not without controversy, with opponents arguing that some can be worse for the environment than traditional petrol. However, this is mainly because large areas of vegetation, such as palm oil plants, need to be harvested to obtain some biofuels, which would not apply to the recycling of PPE.
The early weeks of the UK response to the Covid-19 pandemic were dogged by insufficient access to PPE, a factor blamed for the deaths of NHS and social care staff.
Dr Bhawna Yadav Lamba, the study co-author, said: “Pyrolysis is the most commonly used chemical method whose benefits include the ability to produce high quantities of bio-oil which is easily biodegradable.
“There is always a need for alternative fuels or energy resources to meet our energy demands. The pyrolysis of plastics is one of the methods to mitigate our energy crisis.
“The challenges of PPE waste management and increasing energy demand could be addressed simultaneously by the production of liquid fuel from PPE kits. The liquid fuel produced from plastics is clean and have fuel properties similar to fossil fuels.”