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Today’s PPE kits could be tomorrow’s roads, fuel — CSIR’s plan to tackle Covid plastic surge

With Covid pandemic requiring single-use PPE kits and other plastics, there has been a surge in plastic waste. CSIR is looking at ways to reduce this waste and establish safety protocol.

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New Delhi: Scientists from at least four Indian institutions are coming together to recycle the deluge of single-use plastics thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic and keep them from polluting our environment.

The National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) Pune, Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP) Dehradun, Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (CMERI) Durgapur, and Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR) Lucknow — all affiliated with the government’s Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) — are pooling their expertise to convert discarded personal protective equipment (PPE), and other plastic waste of the pandemic into fuel or pellets that can be moulded into automobile parts or used for road construction. 

“We have an in-principle approval from the CSIR. The work on sanitising waste materials is already under way at the IIP and the CMERI. The waste will be shredded and then agglomerated into standardised plastic pellets,” C.V. Rode, a scientist at CSIR-NCL, who is heading the programme, told ThePrint.  

These pellets will be sent to the NCL, which has the technology to test their structural and chemical properties. Based on the properties of the pellets produced, the researchers will work with industry partners to decide their potential applications, Rode said. 

The pellets, he added, can be moulded into automobile parts, or plastic covers, or be used in road construction. 

India has been employing plastic waste in road construction since 2016. The country has so far reportedly built over 1 lakh kilometres of roads where raw materials include plastic waste.

“Most of the expertise and infrastructure for recycling plastic wastes is already available,” Rode said. “The only thing we have to set up is a standard protocol for recycling Covid-19 wastes.” 

This includes thoroughly sanitising the waste to ensure the safety of all those involved in handling it. “In two to three months, we will be ready with the process,” Rode said. 

Also read: Covid has resurrected single-use plastic. Pandemic is turning clock back

The big plastic problem

For a world already battling a massive plastic pollution problem, the Covid plastic surge requires efficient solutions to ensure humans are not left reeling under another crisis when the pandemic recedes.

According to estimates by the United Nations (UN), only nine per cent of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. “About 12 per cent has been incinerated, while the rest — 79 per cent — has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment,” the UN said in an analysis of the plastic pollution problem.

A staggering eight million tonnes of plastic, which is non-biodegradable, end up in the world’s oceans every year, the report states, adding that “more than 90 per cent of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans” is carried by 10 rivers, including the Ganga.

Plastics in the oceans have not only been known to choke marine life, but can also end up in our meals when we consume seafood. This is just one of the many threats posed by plastic pollution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced last year that India will phase out single-use plastic, but the coronavirus crisis has caused a worldwide surge in its use. 

Full-body PPE kits, face shields, and several components in the RT-PCR testing kits are made of plastic and have to be disposed of after single use for hygiene reasons. 

Standard protocol for managing biomedical waste dictates that it should be incinerated. But this poses a significant burden for the environment in view of the sheer quantity of such plastic now requiring disposal. 

Rode noted that PPE kits “are made of polymers which are not biodegradable”. “Because of the pandemic, the extent of utilisation of these keeps increasing everyday,” he said.  

For example, he added, for every 1,000 Covid-19 tests that are carried out, about 22 kg plastic waste is generated. This includes PPE kits worn by healthcare professionals, as well as testing swabs, some types of pipettes, and plastic bottles used to store the swabs. 

India is currently carrying out over 6.6 lakh tests per day — that would generate more than 14,500 kg of plastic waste everyday from testing centres alone. 

“Currently, under biomedical waste management guidelines, these types of wastes are usually incinerated, but a lot of the waste from smaller hospitals and testing centres end up in landfills,” Rode said. 

Also read: These giant machines are removing all the plastic choking India’s water bodies

Challenges ahead

As part of the efforts to recycle plastics, the CSIR has already set up several projects over the past few years. 

For example, a pilot plant that can convert plastic to fuel was inaugurated at IIP in Dehradun last year.

The plant uses a process called pyrolysis — which involves heating plastic in the absence of oxygen. For every kilogram of plastic, the plant can produce up to 700 ml of petrol or 850 mL diesel. 

Once the sanitisation process is standardised for Covid-19 waste, the team is also considering developing mobile waste recycling facilities. “The waste can be shredded and agglomerated at the place of waste generation itself and the pellets can be given to the industries that can put these to use,” Rode added. 

One of the challenges in recycling Covid-19 wastes is that different manufacturers use different types of materials for PPE kits or swabs, and there is no way to segregate these. The team will try to find the solution to those challenges over the next few months. 

Also read: Kerala is pulling plastic from the oceans to build roads


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