Since the start of the pandemic, an estimated 8.4m tonnes of plastic waste has been generated from 193 countries. The majority of this waste ends up in landfill or, in some areas, in the ocean.
In an effort to address this the teams are working on the development of a process that turns this waste into a secondary raw material called pyrolysis oil, which can then be refined into new commercial products like new PPE products or fuels.
“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,” explained Dr Aimaro Sanna, an assistant professor in chemical and process engineering (EPS) at Heriot-Watt University.
Initially, the research - which is supported through Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Partnerships scheme - 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, the long-term hope is that the 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,” added Prof Sanna.
As part of the initiative, Globus Group – which has produced one billion medical masks and 300 million FFP respirators per year for the UK since the start of the pandemic - has implemented innovative sustainable thermal heating technology at its Alpha Solway factory in Golborne in North West England.
Developed by Thermal Compaction Group (TCG), the machine has been designed to heat and compact the plastic polypropylene into large, reusable 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%.
Pete Lee, head of quality at Globus Group, said: “We acknowledge our responsibility to the NHS, supporting it in delivering a ‘net zero’ sustainable future, and the long-term welfare of future generations. This technology will be a real game changer in the way we tackle our PPE waste.”