Single-use plastics in PPE becoming major driver for climate change

Single-use plastics in PPE becoming major driver for climate change
Fears that used PPE will put further pressure on the environment

That was one of the findings from a Green Party-hosted webinar on the environmental costs of personal protective equipment (PPE) and sustainable healthcare, which explored evidence showing huge amounts of unnecessary global healthcare wastage, as well as in Ireland.

Dr Mandeep Dhaliwal, the United Nations Development Programme director of health and development group, told the webinar that before the Covid-19 pandemic, emissions from global healthcare were more than 500 coal plants.

Healthcare Without Harm's report last year found the sector's global footprint is 4.4% of global net emissions, or two gigatonnes of carbon dioxide or 500 coal plant emissions.

"These emissions are already quite significant and we are operating from an environment prior to Covid, where we have a significant challenge in how do we make the health sector carbon neutral.

"Emissions come from energy, transport, product manufacture and disposal. PPE particularly used in the healthcare sector is typically made from synthetic, non-biodegradable material. 

"Currently, with Covid-19, we are disposing of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves every month. 

That is a significant amount of synthetic, non-biodegradable material that we have to manage in a way that does not harm human health and the health of the planet."

She said the PPE being used is increasing single-use plastics, one of the major drivers of climate change. 

Without effective management, the increase in environmental risks and public health risks could become another problem, she said.

Solutions include reducing single-use plastic in health and developing more sustainable PPE, specifically national assessments for health waste management. 

Promoting non-incinerative technologies, bio-digestive innovation, cloth face masks and washing hands instead of wearing plastic gloves are key, she said.

Ireland South MEP, Grace O'Sullivan, said PPE equipment being discarded is the "new wave of single-use plastic waste".

"Just a few decades ago, almost all PPE was reusable, and that changed in the 1980s when the medical devices industry recognised the moneymaking potential of single-use disposable products. This makes me despair. The reality is, action is needed by industry, government and consumers. Not either or, but together."

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