Is Plant-based PPE the vaccine to  COVID-19 litter?

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. 
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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:

 

 

  • Compostable require temperatures of 60 degrees for 90 days
  • Home-compostable requires 20-30 degrees for between 28 days to 26 weeks. 

Of course, city streets, the countryside, local rivers, sea do not currently reach these temperatures, which means these items will still remain litter. And even if they do degrade after 26 weeks naturally that is still 6 months of littering time!  You can read more on the different
​bio-plastic classifications here

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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. 
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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?

 

  • Is the recycling or composting process practically available in the location this item will end up?
  • ​Can my waste contractor process it in the suggested way?
  • Does the manufacturer offer a take-back scheme
  • ​Will it actually end up in general waste (which means it is probably going for waste-to-energy incineration)?
  • If it becomes litter, can it actually degrade? (if something can hold a fizzy drink in it, it is unlikely to dissolve when it lands on a grass field)
 

 

                Want all the insights into Waste and recycling, watch the Waste 101 recording 

 

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