PPE disposal leads to confusion and cons

The amount of personal protective equipment in circulation is rising fast but there is confusion over how best to dispose of it. David Burrows reports.

Foodservice and hospitality businesses have been left baffled by the UK Government’s stance on staff and customers wearing face coverings. Some ministers have been donning masks to collect their lunch at Pret, but others have not. Hotel guests have been advised to wear them in corridors but as yet there is no similar obligation for staff to do so.

The confusion does not end there though: many of the masks being used are single-use and there are reports that some waste companies are trying to scam businesses into paying more for their collections due to the presence of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“… we have become aware of some more unscrupulous companies who seek to persuade businesses that this type of PPE should go into clinical waste,” wrote Phil Steer, commercial manager (clinical) at Grundon Waste Management, on a recent blog. This “over-classifies” the waste and pushes costs up, he warned.

Footprint was also sent a press release from a commercial waste company that called for PPE-specific bins on the high street. “PPE can’t just be placed into a normal bin. It falls under the category of hazardous waste, which is why we need separate bins made available to the public.”

What is the official guidance? PPE used by the public and businesses outside of health and care environments can be put in a normal bin – that is one for general waste and destined for landfill or energy-from-waste. Defra said: “Businesses can dispose of PPE in the same way as households, by putting it in the normal ‘black bag’ waste bin.  They can also have dedicated bins for PPE disposal.”

Statements from both WRAP and Zero Waste Scotland reinforced this. “The current public message is quite clear: discarded masks to general waste,” added Stephen Freeland, policy advisor at the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which represents the largest waste contractors.

This is different to hospitals and care homes, which is perhaps why the confusion (and the opportunity to con some companies) has emerged. But even then “not all clinical waste generated from hospitals is hazardous waste, and therefore not all clinical waste requires a hazardous waste treatment/high temperature incineration option”, according to the ESA.

Can PPE be recycled? Theoretically yes. Terracycle, which specialises in collecting and recycling ‘hard-to-recycle’ waste, is collecting masks, gloves and face shields from O2 stores. Employees place all the PPE into a ‘zero waste box’, which is sealed and put aside for 72 hours before being collected, sorted and turned into plastic pellets. These are used to manufacture garden benches, decking and the like.

However, it’s not very cost effective. “Given the complex nature of PPE, the recycling costs are very high compared to waste that can be recycled by your local council,” explained Laure Cucuron, general manager for TerraCycle Europe. “The price of each box covers the costs of transporting and processing the waste.”

Outside of such specialist solutions, PPE should not go into recycling streams. There are reports that some is finding its way into paper recycling bins, which can bring safety risks for those working at the sorting plants. As more of the public is asked to wear masks more the time issues could escalate if the messaging is unclear.

“We have been fortunate enough not to have cause to reject material arriving at our mills due to PPE contamination, but this is not to suggest is doesn’t present a challenge upstream,” said Colin McIntyre, CEO of paper and recycling at DS Smith.

How about reusables? The UK Government has bought billions of items of PPE, and is now asking the public to wear masks on public transport. From Friday, face coverings will also be mandatory in shops (which types of shops will hopefully be clearer by then). More and more businesses will also likely be required to offer staff PPE or do so voluntarily. The vast majority of this will be sent to energy-from-waste plants. Some is being littered.

Reusable and washable masks are being supported for public use – there is even a “how to make a simple face covering” page on the government’s website. There are also plenty of reusable options for businesses, which should be washed following the manufacturer’s guidelines.

“PPE has been in the headlines a lot since January, from the embarrassment caused by the national shortage and the medical community’s justified outrage at having to reuse PPE designed for single-use to the increasing need for all of us to mask up in public,” explained Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, a think tank. This is leading to “piles of waste and, worse, unsightly and damaging pollution, with litter pickers and nature reserves from across Europe reporting increased dumping of PPE.”

“But the thing is,” she added, “in most cases this waste stream needn’t exist at all, whether it’s generated by medical professionals or the public. As the government’s own guidance shows, most PPE, including gowns, masks and visors, can be designed for reuse. This needs to be the priority. We should be able to figure out how to have a good stock of reusable PPE and, crucially, the systems in place to hygienically treat them. That way, we can consign the shameful shortages, scenes of pollution and waste of resources to the metaphorical dustbin of history.”

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