Personal protective equipment, commonly known as PPE, is equipment that is designed to protect the wearer from hazards that can cause injuries and illness.
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, PPE — especially masks — have become a crucial part of everyday life. Hence, the demand for PPE masks has dramatically increased, as has the production of plastic-based PPE.
Between 2016 and 2020, the annual rate of increase in the global market for PPE was 6.5%. In contrast, the WHO projected that there should be a 40% monthly increase in the production of PPE kits in order to deal effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic. This demand for PPE is upending the plastic recovery and recycling system and increasing the amount of plastic that is ending up in landfills, as the percentage of plastic usage in PPE is 20%-25% by weight.
To address these problems, manufacturers are working to reduce the amount of plastic in PPE by producing eco-friendly masks using biodegradable materials, creating sturdy reusable masks, and introducing technologies that can turn single-use masks into reusable PPE.
Masks made with sustainable materials:
Many brands are producing sustainable and plant-based alternatives for face masks, a few of which are mentioned here.
PPE made from pre- and post-consumer plant-based waste:
ECOshield by fabriQs is an innovative startup by the Artea Group with the aim of developing a sustainable alternative to face masks, face shields, and other PPE items. The brand creates textiles from proprietary fibers developed from materials including pineapple, banana, corn, sugarcane, bamboo, and hemp fibers, and the company is committed to developing masks from pre- and post-consumer plant-based waste materials that can be composted. The startup is supported by the Qatar Foundation for Research, Development, and Innovation (QFRDI). The products are expected to be made available as early as the first quarter of 2021.
The first fully biodegradable face mask:
Proveil Biomask by Bioinicia and CSIS (the Spanish National Research Council) is the first fully biodegradable face mask. Along with being biodegradable, the Proveil Biomask has a nanofiber filter that offers excellent bacterial and aerosol filtration. It is extremely thin and lightweight and yet it effectively captures respirable airborne particles and allows good breathability.
Electrospun nanofiber filtration media
Bio-based transparent surgical mask:
HelloMask By HMCARE is a transparent surgical mask that enhances the wearer’s ability to engage in verbal and nonverbal communication. HelloMask received its certification from Europe because of its unique patented technology that combines transparency of material and ease of breath with protection from pathogens. Along with its unique transparency technology, it has a low environmental impact, as it is a bio-based, biodegradable surgical mask. These masks are 99% biomass-derived. The researchers developed a membrane for HelloMask that is produced by a process called electrospinning, which produces a porous, semi-transparent material out of polymer fibers. These fibers are 100 nanometers apart — enough to filter out any viruses or bacteria while allowing for comfortable breathing. It is said to be available in the market in early 2021.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, medical-grade masks were made for one-time use only, and this is one of the major reasons mask use is negatively affecting the planet. Here are a few reusable mask options that are available.
Reusable masks made from recycled materials:
AirX Coffee Mask is a green solution that is made entirely from recycled materials, making it both sustainable and reusable. As the name suggests, it smells like fresh coffee, as it is made from coffee yarn, a soft natural material. The mask can be easily washed and reused and lasts up to 10 years. It offers multi-layer protection and nano-filteration, along with anti-bacterial and anti-microbial technologies. The mask is available in different sizes and colors.
Reusable organic cotton masks:
Avocado is known for their green mattresses. But the company is now producing a line of organic cotton face masks . Consisting of two layers of 100% GOTS organic-certified cotton, they are washable reusable face masks that helps reduce the COVID-19 virus by 85%. Although these are not medical-grade N95 face masks, they do allow a particulate filter to be easily inserted in the pocket.
Technology that cleans PPE for reuse:
Rather than producing new types of masks to help reduce plastic pollution, there are a few technologies available on the market that clean existing masks thoroughly and make them reusable as new.
Portable UVC light disinfecting device:
CleanDefence by Cleanbox Technology is a portable UVC–light based technology that decontaminates N95, cloth, and other layered masks. It takes a minute to two to clean 4 masks at a time. The device was originally designed to disinfect augmented and virtual reality headsets using the same UVC-LED light. In the last few months, the company modified their technology to disinfect masks. CleanDefence is claimed to disinfect 99.99% of viruses, bacteria, and fungi spores within seconds.
Large-scale hospital PPE decontamination system:
The Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System decontaminates large amounts of PPE at a time and is being used by hospitals in the United States that are at risk of running short on supplies. The company’s modular design can easily be shipped to hotspots and scaled up as needed to protect essential workers while PPE supply chains are reinforced. Hospitals send their worn N95 respirators to the units to be decontaminated using concentrated, vapor phase hydrogen peroxide, and then they are returned.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to last into 2022, the demand for PPE will continue to remain high. Even in the post-pandemic period, the demand for PPE is not expected to decline substantially. Hence, the use of sustainable PPE is essential to avoid plastic waste from piling up as well as for mitigating the waste of other materials that go into single-use masks and other PPE. Companies that are introducing sustainable PPE technologies are displaying the resilience needed to overcome a difficult economic environment by finding opportunity in the challenges that COVID-19 has presented.
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