Globally, tens of thousands of tonnes of medical waste is going to landfill, while some countries have suffered a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) as Covid-19 surges. Now, a group of Kiwi scientists have found a solution, with two groundbreaking innovations.

“We have developed a new technology to sterilise, reuse, recycle and valorise PPE waste,” says chemical engineer Saeid Baroutian from the University of Auckland.

He’s just one of many scientists that have been working on creating two different machines as part of the project funded by the Government’s Covid-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund. The project looks at ways to better manage PPE waste and how to safely reuse it in healthcare.

The first machine that’s been created disinfects PPE.

“What we found with our work was that UV disinfection wasn’t successful in getting into all those nooks and crannies of three-dimensional surfaces such as nose bridges in the masks. It meant we couldn’t actually disinfect with UV but what we did find was dry heat inactivated the virus very effectively,” says the lead scientist of the project, Dr Yvonne Anderson from the University of Auckland.

“What we then undertook was a rapid scalable solution so we implemented a pilot project in Port Taranaki alongside all of the work going on in the lab to bring those findings in to the real world scenario. What we found was we can actually create a large-scale oven disinfection of PPE that can be rapidly packed down into shipping containers and moved and mobilised anywhere we might need in the globe."

However, not all PPE can be reused, especially if it’s damaged, so disinfecting means it can be safely recycled into new products without any of the toxins.

But, for many PPE items neither option is suitable, and that’s where this second revolutionary machine at the University of Auckland comes into its own.

“We use hot and pressurised water or hydrothermal deconstruction technology to completely destroy non-recyclable and non-recoverable PPE waste,” says Baroutian.

The machine can deal with masks, gloves, plastic gowns and even safety glasses.

They’re cut into pieces, mixed with water, pressurised with oxygen at 300 degrees Celsius and in just an hour, the PPE is converted into water with small amounts of acetic acid, which is the same as vinegar – a household substance often used for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.

“Our gaseous products are mainly air and oxygen and a low concentration of carbon dioxide which is safe to be discharged directly into the air."

Around 87,000 tonnes of PPE has been shipped around the globe since the pandemic began, according to a new report by the World Health Organization, and they believe most of that has ended up in landfill. The WHO is now calling for urgent action on medical waste management.

The two machines have been tried and tested and are now ready to be upscaled.

“We hope that the next stages can be further funding and potential partnership with commercial organisations to rapidly scale and implement this type of solution wherever it needs to go,” says Anderson.

“This technology can solve lots of our problems, waste problems – including PPE waste. The technology is scalable and it’s clean, we only use water and air so it’s chemical-free and the process discharge is clean. We can also reuse the water for processing cycles which means we can minimise water consumption and ensure water sustainability in this process also," adds Baroutian.

The scientists are hoping that with an upscaled version of the machines, they can clean up more of the planet's medical waste.

Top Image: A bin full of disposable masks (Source: 1News)

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