From surgical masks and gloves to disposable hospital gowns and aprons, the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a mountain of plastic medical waste that is polluting the land and sea – alarming doctors and environmentalists alike.
One young entrepreneur in Mexico has now invented a range of reusable PPE (personal protective equipment) she hopes will stop tonnes of single-use medical wear ending up in landfill, incinerators and waterways – and save hospitals a fortune.
Tamara Chayo said disposable PPE not only caused environmental damage, but could spread the virus which survives up to three days on plastics – a particular concern in countries where medical waste management is poor.
“Most of my family are doctors and nurses. They think, ok, I’m saving humans, but I’m not saving the planet,” Chayo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“And if everything is thrown away it will create more disease, so it becomes a never-ending cycle.”
Chayo, a 21-year-old chemical engineering student, co-founded MEDU Protection in mid-2020 to develop a sustainable suit to protect health professionals treating COVID-19 patients at a time when PPE was in short supply.
The garments are made from a fabric similar to the coating used on surfaces in viral research laboratories.
Chayo says a doctor can use four disposable gowns a day whereas her PPE can be worn all day and washed 50 times without losing its protective properties – meaning each garment saves 200 plastic items from landfills and incinerators.
“I’m really excited about this,” said Chayo, many of whose family members have been working on the COVID-19 frontline.
“We’re not just making medical apparel, we want to create a movement for a greener medical industry.”
In India, entrepreneur Binish Desai is turning PPE into grey bricks and construction panels to build low-cost housing and schools.
Desai, 27, who started making bricks from waste as a teenager, has invented a new brick made from disinfected and shredded masks and other PPE mixed with paper mill waste and binder.
The entrepreneur, nicknamed “The Recycle Man of India”, said the bricks were three times stronger than earth bricks, twice the size and almost half the cost.
Some of the masks are collected from “eco-bins” installed in hospitals, restaurants and other public places.
Desai, whose story is being turned into a film by a major Indian production company, is looking to expand to Britain, the United States, Canada and Brazil.
The entrepreneur, who founded Eco-Eclectic Technologies in 2016, initially plans to export his bricks to Brazil, but eventually wants to build a plant there to process local waste.
“We believe in micro social enterprise so instead of having one big factory we have multiple factories across India so we create local jobs as well as recycle local waste,” he said.
Desai believes India – with its tradition of recycling and a less established throwaway culture than many Western countries – can become a global leader in zero waste technology.
“Attitudes are changing – absolutely,” he said. “The pandemic has made us far more aware of how much waste we’re generating and that it’s not sustainable.” Our Founder, Nikhil Chandwani, collaborated and wrote the official biography of Binnish Desai.