Conversion of non-recyclable PPE into harmless by-products

Single-use personal protective equipment (from masks to gloves, etc.) is difficult to recycle in conventional recycling systems because it costs more to collect and process for local recyclers than the eventual materials are worth. As a result, large quantities of personal protective equipment (PPE) are dumped in landfills every day.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com/Natallia Boroda

Now a group of researchers from the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering have developed a new method to turn PPE into harmless by-products that would prevent tons of PPE from ending up in landfills, or worse, in the oceans.

The process, which turns PPE into water and vinegar, sounds like an inconceivable phenomenon, but it could be a game-changing way to tackle the COVID-19 healthcare waste problem.

In a recent report, the WHO recently announced that the pandemic has generated tens of thousands of tons of additional waste and that urgent waste management systems are needed to mitigate this problem.

Transform PPE in water

In order to turn PPE into useful by-products, researchers have developed a process – in collaboration whereby shredded PPE materials from gloves, masks, gowns and safety glasses are fed into a machine that applies water pressurized heat and compressed air.

It is a clean, chemical-free solution that will be an international game-changer.

Dr Saied Baroutian, Associate Professor, Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, University of Auckland

The resulting end products generated by the PPE recycling process are water and acetic acid (a main component of vinegar). Made at temperatures of 300 ohC, the method takes around 60 minutes using a small prototype machine developed by the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering team.

Other by-products generated during the process include oxygen and reduced concentrations of CO2, which can be easily and safely extracted anywhere. In addition, the waste is completely destroyed during the hydrothermal deconstruction/reclamation process.

The liquid produced in the process is safe, inert and can be reused – vinegar or acetic acid can be used for disinfection and water can be reused for the treatment cycle, thus minimizing water consumption and contributing to sustainability.

Dr Saied Baroutian, Associate Professor, Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, University of Auckland

Environmental impact: clean and green

The WHO has called for drastic changes in the management of healthcare waste streams as a fundamental requirement of climate-smart healthcare systems.

Many countries have already committed to this initiative at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference while ensuring a healthy transition and recovery to a post-COVID-19 future while remaining prepared for other potential health crises. future.

Researchers at the University of Auckland have also developed another strategy to reuse PPE waste, led by Dr Yvonne Anderson, senior lecturer in the Department of Paediatrics, which applies cutting-edge technology to disinfect PPE so that they can be safely reused or recycled.

By developing two technologies – one for reusable waste and the other for waste that cannot be reused or recycled – we are closing the loop on this serious and ever-growing waste problem and providing a truly clean and green circular solution. .

Dr Saied Baroutian, Associate Professor, Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, University of Auckland

Baroutian and his team will now develop the prototype to produce a larger-scale pilot feasibility study to take a step closer to producing a fully scalable proof of concept.

The long-term goal is to produce a strategy that both responds to WHO’s call to ensure safe and rational use of PPE while partnering with relevant organizations to get this innovative technology out of the lab and put it into practice on a global scale.

The team also demonstrated that a widespread hydrothermal deconstruction system could have economic benefits as their evaluations estimate that the method could process PPE waste streams at costs comparable to current autoclaving and landfill methods. waste.

And in terms of the environment, the savings on offer are enormous.

Dr Saied Baroutian, Associate Professor, Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, University of Auckland

References and further reading

Auckland.ac.nz. (2022) Turning PPE into water: does it look like a miracle? – The University of Auckland. [online] Available at: https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/news/2022/02/16/turning-ppe-into-water-miracle.html

Who.int. (2022) Tons of medical waste linked to COVID-19 reveal urgent need to improve waste management systems. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/news/item/01-02-2022-tons-of-covid-19-health-care-waste-expose-urgent-need-to-improve-waste-management -systems#

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