The pandemic is generating tons of discarded PPE. This entrepreneur is turning them into bricks

MANHATTAN, NY – MARCH 5: Mount Sinai Health System hospital located in Manhattan, NY, holds personal protective equipment (PPE) refresher training course for staff on March 5th, 2020. These courses are being held at the hospital since the outbreak of the Coronavirus in January. (MUST CREDIT: Sharon Pulwer for The Washington Post)

NEW DELHI – As coronavirus cases spread around the world earlier this year, Binish Desai found himself increasingly nervous. It wasn’t only the pandemic that worried him, but the waste it was generating.

Masks and protective gear were being used a single time and then discarded by the tons, eventually destined for landfills or bodies of water.

“I have eco-anxiety,” said Desai, 27, who describes himself as an environmental activist and innovator in western India. When he sees waste, he said, he automatically begins thinking about ways to use it.

By September, he had come up with a solution: Take the used protective gear and mold it into bricks for buildings. He said he already has made more than 40,000 such bricks for projects including homes and factories, and is gearing up to produce 15,000 a day.

Desai’s recycling effort is one small step toward addressing a global environmental hazard. To fight the virus, countries around the world have increased production of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Such gear is often made of polypropylene plastic, a synthetic resin that can take hundreds of years to degrade.

Exactly how much waste the pandemic is creating worldwide is not clear, but experts say it is significant. One study estimated – on the basis of a projection for Italy – that the world could be using up to 129 billion face masks a month.

India, home to more than 1.3 billion people, has mandated the use of masks in public and has manufactured tens of millions of protective suits since the start of the pandemic. Nearly 20,000 tons of coronavirus-related biomedical waste were generated between June and September, according to figures from India’s environmental watchdog.

A recent report from the United Nations Environmental Program estimated that developing countries are generating about five pounds of covid-related health-care waste per hospital bed each day. In Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic, the daily medical waste increased sixfold at the height of the outbreak.

In the United Kingdom, health authorities distributed more than 2.3 billion PPE items for use by health and social services in England from February to July of this year – almost as many as in all of 2019.

Experts say the sudden surge in the consumption of single-use PPE has reversed years of efforts to battle the scourge of nondegradable solid waste.

The increase is a matter of “enormous concern that is polluting our planet,” said Jodi Sherman, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health who studies the environmental impacts of health care systems.

Kumar Raja Vanapalli, an expert on plastic waste management at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, said that although some used PPE will end up in landfills, others could end up in oceans where “they may affect marine life and even break into microplastics” that ultimately “end up in food streams and come back to us.”

Several innovators are working on ways to recycle the waste, whether in the form of liquid biofuel or through new products such as Desai’s bricks.

Desai, who grew up in the city of Valsad in the state of Gujarat, claims to be a kind of recycling prodigy. He became interested in the field as a child and said he founded his own company at the age of 16. Later he went on to study biotechnology. He said he has turned coffee grounds into bowls and plates, fabric lint into soundproofing panels and textile waste into furniture. Before the pandemic, he said, his firm was mainly making eco-friendly bricks composed of industrial paper sludge.

His latest innovation, he said, adds biomedical waste to the mix – 52%, to be precise. To obtain the waste, he installed bins outside shops and apartment buildings in which people could discard their used items.

First, the PPE material from body coverings, masks and head caps is isolated for three days. Then the fabric is sanitized and shredded before being sanitized again. Next it is mixed with 47% paper sludge and a binding agent and pressed by hand into various molds. Each brick weighs around 3 pounds and costs about 4 cents, Desai said.

One of his clients is Chirag Naik, the owner of a local packaging factory. Naik ordered 5,000 of Desai’s PPE bricks to construct an expansion of his facility starting next month.

“There are always questions that come initially, such as viability, safety and strength,” said Naik, 48. But once those questions were addressed, Naik said, his excitement grew. “When sustainability is the need of the hour, I personally believe that such innovations need to become mainstream.”

Desai, meanwhile, said he is only getting started. He is eager to collaborate with governments to convert biomedical waste into the large-scale production of bricks that could be used in road construction and other infrastructure projects.

The sooner that happens, “the faster we will be able to get rid” of PPE waste, he said. “We need to start taking it very seriously.”

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