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We've created a lot of PPE waste and it's harder to recycle than you may think

Recycling companies see influx of PPE waste since pandemic
Posted at 10:17 AM, Aug 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-10 13:17:06-04

From masks to gloves and everything in between, we’ve all used more personal protective equipment over the course of the pandemic.

On the streets, in the water, chances are you’ve seen that PPE somewhere it isn't supposed to be.

A study from the Ocean Conservancy earlier this year shows more than half of survey participants see PPE pollution in their communities daily.

“The volume of that type of PPE absolutely exploded and still is the case today of course,” Tom Szaky is the founder of TerraCycle, a waste management company that operates in 22 countries.

“We at TerraCycle have been recycling PPE for, gosh, 15 years,” he said.

The company collects and recycles hard-to-recycle materials.

“From cigarette butts to dirty diapers,” Szaky said.

The problem with items like gloves and masks is that they can’t be recycled with more traditional items like cans and glass bottles.

“It’s not economically profitable for waste management to bother recycling PPE, so it all ends up as garbage. And then unfortunately in a consumer use setting much of it can also end up as litter,” Szaky said.

TerraCycle has a process for it.

“Suddenly locations that were not using our services before like bars and restaurants and supermarkets...and educational institutions and offices started using TerraCycle to recycle the PPE,” he said.

First, it gets collected. Then, it’s sorted.

“We then sort out any macro contaminants,” he explained. “Then we take it, amalgamate it into large volumes and in the case of PPE it gets shredded, the plastics get melted into new raw materials.”

All of this is done through a high-temperature process that decontaminates, and then the raw materials are sold to manufacturers.

Recycling companies all over have seen an increase in PPE.

“I have been amazed at how many gloves and masks and PPE-related items you see along streets,” Cory White, the chief commercial officer of Stericycle, said.

Stericycle is a waste collection and recycling company.

“We have seen a modest increase in the amount of PPE coming from hospitals and doctors' offices,” he said.

That’s where most PPE is being used.

“Over the course of the first year, we issued out and consumed approximately a million masks,” Matt Putman, the director of supply chain at UCHealth, said.

He said they capitalized on recycling guidelines to make sure items that needed to be thrown away were thrown away, while other items were recycled.

“We were able to divert a lot of items from landfills and incinerators because of those very careful plans,” he said.

While it’s hard to put a number on exactly how much waste we’re talking about, an analysis done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said if every healthcare worker in the U.S. used a new N95 mask for each patient they encountered in the first six months of the pandemic, 7.4 billion masks would be required.

“PPE specifically does not render itself very well to recycling,” White said.

As we continue to use masks, gloves, and other items, Szaky and Putman said there are ways to be more conscious of your waste.

“Try to avoid things that are disposable and not recyclable in any way,” Szaky said.

“You can go out and buy masks off of Amazon or other companies to be able to wear on your own and not always buy the consumable disposable product that's out there, so that's what we learned and we’re going to continue to learn,” Putman said.