Innovative project to recycle PPE

By Olive Carterton

Plastic PPE waste is to be given another life in a ‘ground-breaking’ recycling collaboration between Heriot-Watt University in Edin­burgh and Britain’s largest PPE manufacturer, Globus Group.

The joint project between Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University and the UK’s largest PPE manufacturer will treat the plastic waste so that the polypropylene is recycled into large, re-usable blocks

The soaring quantities of plastic PPE, including respirators and masks, that have been thrown away during the pandemic has been widely criticised as the world strives to reach Net Zero goals.

Since the start of the pandemic, an estimated 8.4m tonnes of plastic waste has been generated from 193 countries, most ending up in landfill or, in some areas, in the ocean.

Now a new Knowledge Transfer Partnership  project is set to revolutionise how used plastic PPE is treated to turn the waste into a secondary raw material called pyrolysis oil, which can then be refined into new commercial products like new PPE products or fuels.   

The project, which aims to create a robust circular economy approach for plastics, will run for two years.

Dr Aimaro Sanna, an assistant professor in chemical and process engineering at Heriot-Watt, said: ‘We will be working closely with our commercial partner Globus Group to develop a bespoke process that will be applied to PPE plastic waste that cannot currently be recycled mechanically due to various technological, economic or ecological reasons. 

‘As the world strives to reduce its landfill, ocean impact and carbon emissions, this project is a significant step towards addressing the increased waste generated during the global pandemic.

Examplar technique

‘Initially, the research will help to recycle over 100 tonnes of product generated by the manufacturing process every year – the equivalent to 10kg of waste every hour. However, our hope is that this new process will be adopted more widely. 

‘Many countries have been un­able to process their plastic waste PPE properly. Our ground-breaking research aims to address these challenges providing an exemplar technique for application globally.’

Since the pandemic’s onset, Globus Group has been producing one billion medical masks and 300m FFP respirators a year for healthcare trusts across the UK. The manufacturing process currently results in 7g of waste material per medical mask.

The new scheme launched by Globus Group and Heriot-Watt University will develop an innovative process for cost and energy-efficient recycling and repurposing of this PPE waste.

As part of the initiative, Globus Group has implemented innovative sustainable thermal heating technology at its Alpha Solway factory in Golborne, Greater Manchester. 

Developed by Thermal Com­paction Group (TCG), the machine has been designed to heat and compact the plastic polypropylene into large, re-usable blocks.

These are then collected and processed, providing raw materials which Globus Group can use to make new PPE products – reducing the company’s PPE waste by an estimated 85%.