With the increase in PPE usage around the world, latex gloves and single-use masks are now the latest form of plastic littering. So we investigate if plastic-free or plant-based PPE is the solution to plastic pollution, and what questions you should ask when you see a new product on the market.
PPE litter is being reported everywhere as individuals discard after shopping trips or masks fly on the wind, and with concern about their contamination, most are concerned to pick up. At the end of May 2020, the French
non-profit Opération Mer Propre, shared divers images of gloves and face-masks during their litter-picks along the Cote d’Azure demonstrating that they had made their way to the sea.
Amidst these concerns, there have been announcements of plastic-free cellulose-based visors for hospitals and compostable plant-based plastic gloves for hospitality.
Whilst many people applaud these products as a win against plastic pollution, however we are more sceptical. Materials using the terms biodegradable, compostable or plant-based, can sound a better option to their villainized fossil-fuel plastic cousin, but we always want to know these things?
What happens if they become litter?
Whilst these material’s descriptions sound like they will degrade naturally if they become litter. The reality is items certified:
bio-plastic classifications here.
Which compost facilities will actually accept them?
Yes, technically they were certified in a lab but does that practically play out in the waste system’s in your location? In the UK it is worth noting that in hospitals, PPE is treated as clinical or infectious waste which is sent for incineration, and our business and home general waste mainly goes for waste-to energy incineration (burning is not composting).
In order for these new plant-based visors to get composted, Terracycle, a company that provides takeback schemes for hard-to-recycle plastics is offering a takeback scheme for the cellulose ‘home-compostable’ PPE visors, that hit the market recently because these can’t simply go into the existing food composting system because the reality is most processors (anaerobic digestors) don’t actually accept compostable or home compostable plastics. For more on the different types of bio-plastics and how they should be processed read our blog.
So what is the answer for PPE?
For individuals and businesses who are not on the front-line, the advice is to use reusable cloth masks and wash after use. Gloves should only be used by care and hospitality staff and not by individuals. Doctors have spoken out against individuals going shopping wearing gloves in the car, the supermarket and then back home- they are just collecting and spreading germs. The best method for germ prevention is still hand-washing.
Well if these compostable materials go in your general waste bin, they will not biodegrade in landfill because nothing degrades in landfill, and in the main your general waste will be going for waste-to-energy incineration.
But surely bio-based plastics are better than fossil-based plastics?
Being made from plants, they have a lower carbon footprint. However, let’s not forget they are still single-use, which means that a constant stream of raw materials is required to make them, process and transport them.
Questions to ask when you see a bio-based material?
These are the questions to ask when you consider a new plant-based or biodegradable product?
Waste 101- Waste & Recycling Mastermind
If you want to learn more about waste processing systems, where different materials go and how to improve your recycling, watch the Waste 101 - Waste and Recycling Mastermind.
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The content was prepared to be relevant for businesses, events and individuals who want to geek out on waste, plastics and ‘do the right’ thing.
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