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Though COVID-19 has actually had some positive short-term effects for the environment, personal protective equipment (PPE), which is currently being used and disposed of at an unprecedented rate, poses a serious problem for the environment.
Now, a new study, published in the peer-reviewed Taylor & Francis journal Biofuels, claims that plastic from used PPE can, and should be, turned into biofuel.
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Billions of pieces of discarded PPE
The research, conducted by a team from The University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (UPES) in India, shows how billions of pieces of disposable PPE can be converted from their polypropylene (plastic) state into renewable liquid fuels.
The conversion into biocrude, a type of synthetic fuel, "will not just prevent the severe after-effects to humankind and the environment but also produce a source of energy," Lead author Dr. Sapna Jain explained in a press release.
"We have to prepare ourselves to meet the challenges which are forcefully imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, so as to maintain sustainability," she continued.
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, PPE has been designed for single use followed by disposal. Once these items are disposed of, the plastic materials are discharged into the environment where they take decades to decompose and end up in landfills or oceans.
Mitigating our energy crisis during a health crisis
The team reviewed many research articles as they explored the methods currently being used to dispose of PPE and whether turning it into biofuel would be a feasible option. They came to the conclusion that recycling these polymers requires physical as well as chemical methods.
In particular, the researchers focused on the structure of polypropylene and the damaging role it has on the environment. Their findings conclusively state that PPE waste should be converted into fuel using pyrolysis — a chemical process that breaks down plastics at temperatures between 300-400 degrees centigrade without oxygen.
"Pyrolysis is the most commonly used chemical method whose benefits include the ability to produce high quantities of bio-oil which is easily biodegradable," Co-author Dr. Bhawna Yadav Lamba explains.
"There is always a need for alternative fuels or energy resources to meet our energy demands. The pyrolysis of plastics is one of the methods to mitigate our energy crisis."
The liquid fuel that would be produced from PPE is clean and would have similar properties to fuel made from fossil fuels. Effectively, by also helping to reduce the reliance on damaging fossil fuels, turning PPE waste into biofuel would be tackling two environmental problems at once.