Plastic from used personal protective equipment (PPE) can and should be converted into a renewable liquid fuel. A new study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Taylor & Francis Biofuels, suggests a possible solution to the PPE waste problem that has escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experts from the University of Petroleum and Energy Research have proposed a strategy that could help mitigate the growth of PPE waste that is currently being disposed of at unprecedented levels due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. This has become a serious threat to the environment.
Scientists say billions of disposable PPE items can be converted from polypropylene (plastic) to biofuel.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Sapna Jane, explains that converting PPE waste – such as used masks – into bio-oil (a type of synthetic fuel) will not only prevent serious consequences for humanity and the environment but create a new source of energy.
While the world is currently focused on fighting COVID-19, we can foresee the challenges of the economic crisis and environmental imbalance. We must prepare ourselves to address the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcibly imposing.
Dr. Sapna Jane, study lead author
Disposal of PPE is of particular concern due to its nonwoven polypropylene material.
During the current COVID-19 pandemic, PPE is being developed for single-use with subsequent disposal. Once these plastic materials are thrown away, they end up in the environment – landfills or the oceans – as their natural degradation is difficult. It takes them decades to decay. The processing of these polymers requires both physical and chemical methods.
In their search for a solution, scientists focused on the structure of polypropylene, its suitability for PPE, why it poses a threat to the environment, and how this polymer is processed.
Researchers have come to the conclusion that it is possible to combat PPE waste by turning it into fuel using pyrolysis. It is a chemical process that breaks down the plastic at high temperatures – 300 to 400 degrees Celsius for an hour – without oxygen.
This process is one of the most promising and sustainable recycling methods compared to incineration and landfill.
The advantage of pyrolysis is the ability to produce large quantities of biodegradable oil that is readily biodegradable and can also become an alternative energy source – biofuel.