At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when factory production dwindled and most people stayed home, there was a potential silver lining: that nature would benefit. But Binish Desai, head of a recycling business in Valsad, India, has been hit by another pandemic effect: the increased use of plastic.
“I started noticing the use of single-use face masks and PPE kits,” says Desai, founder of Eco Eclectic Technologies, 26. “All of this material was going to be produced once and directly discarded, not recycled, due to its use in the pandemic.”
Desai saw potential use for the plastic masks he discarded daily after personal use. It disinfects and grinds them, then mixes them with by-products from the manufacture of chewing gum and paper mill waste, which act as a binder and paper pulp.
The result was a brick for use in building construction that he says is three times stronger than conventional versions in India.
These bricks – which use around 150 to 200 masks per cubic foot and have been used to build homes, schools and toilets – are now an integral part of Desai’s business, which produces 7,000 to 8,000 a day. About 3,000 bricks will build a 200 square foot room.
But innovations like Desai’s pale in comparison to the number of single-use plastics being made, used, and immediately thrown away, due to the pandemic. And this trend runs counter to the circular economy’s goal of shifting production and consumption away from linear take-make-dispose models.
In November, a study by researchers from Nanjing University and the University of California, San Diego found that the pandemic had generated about 8.4 million tons of “mismanaged” excess plastic waste – it that is, not manipulated or recycled – from 193 countries. And, while 7.6% comes from personal use, such as face masks, the vast majority – 87.4% – comes from hospitals. Much of it is incinerated to eradicate infected material.
However, some initiatives have shown that clinical waste can be both decontaminated and recycled. In the UK, Cardiff-based Thermal Compaction Group’s ‘SteriMelt’ machine, now in several UK hospitals, sterilizes and melts protective masks, wraps and sheets into reusable plastic briquettes.
Another UK company, ReWorked, keeps PPE in ‘quarantine’ for 72 hours, before shredding and molding the waste into plastic panels for use in construction, carpentry and shop fitting.
In India, Desai’s company partners with a medical waste facility that sterilizes syringes and face shields so they can be safely recycled. “Sustainability is cheap, we need mass market solutions and not just lab solutions,” comments Desai.
However, it is not just medical waste that will require a mass market solution. While single-use PPE grabbed headlines, packaging materials resulted in 4.7% of excess waste due to the pandemic surge in online shopping, the study finds. Nanjing University and the University of California.
“It was thought that people were going to stay at home and there would be a slowdown in economic activity, but instead people went home and shopped online,” says Jeremy Pafford, manager of North America at Independent Commodity Intelligence Services, a global commodity market analyst.
Pafford says consumer pressure has led to “increasing demand” for such packaging to be recycled or recyclable, but progress is “slow”. It is also more expensive. In December 2021, the price of European recycled polyethylene terephthalate, suitable for food use – and one of the most expensive plastic resins – was $2,169.96 per ton, while its “virgin” equivalent was $1,757. $.85.
“Recycling facilities still have high costs,” says Paula Leardini, senior plastics recycling analyst at ICIS. “The supply is insufficient, firstly because of the recyclability of the materials – and we still have limits on sorting and collection, public collections from different countries and different cities being effective or not. And recovery rates are still very low.
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Could a better answer be found elsewhere? “If you use certified compostable plastic [which decomposes in industrial facilities], you can’t collect them with plastics, but you can collect them with your food waste,” says David Newman, founder of UK trade body, the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association. “You can put that back in the ground.”
But, he admits, “that’s the theory, but of course it doesn’t work very well in practice.”
First, it would require global standards for food waste collection, which remains a distant ideal due to differences in standards within countries, cities and even local districts. The UK, for example, only recently committed to separate food waste collections by 2023. In the EU, it will be mandatory by 2024. And, according to Newman, some packaging mandates would also be necessary for the decision to succeed.
“You need to be able to ensure a clean waste stream,” he says. “You can’t tell a composting plant, ‘I’m going to give you 50% plastic tea bags and 50% compostable’, because they have to reject everything.” In October 2021, UK campaign organization A Plastic Planet explained why it recommended compostable mandates for specific items, such as food bin bags, carrier bags, tea bags, coffee pods and stickers for fruits and vegetables.
According to Newman, such mandates are a pill that society must swallow. “It’s kind of like the deal we made with electric cars, where we say, ‘OK, by 2030 your car has to be electric, be done with it,'” he explains. To ensure a clean waste stream for packaging, “we need to mandate that it’s only compostable plastics,” he says.