Experts say used personal protective equipment (PPE) can, and should, be transformed into renewable liquid fuels.

Experts from The University of Petroleum and Energy Studies have suggested a strategy that could help to mitigate the problem of dumped PPE – currently being disposed of at unprecedented levels due to the current COVID-19 pandemic – becoming a significant threat to the environment.

Their research shows billions of items of disposable PPE can be converted from their polypropylene (plastic) state into biofuels – which is known to be at par with standard fossil fuels.

The transformation 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”, says lead author Dr Sapna Jain.

“Presently, the world is focusing to combat COVID-19, however, we can foresee the issues of economic crisis and ecological imbalance also,” she said.

“We have to prepare ourselves to meet the challenges which are forcefully imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, so as to maintain sustainability.

“There is a high production and utilization of PPE to protect the community of health workers and other frontline workers of COVID-19. The disposal of PPE is a concern owing to its material i.e. non-woven polypropylene.

“The proposed strategy is a suggestive measure addressing the anticipated problem of disposal of PPE.”

The experts are calling for PPE waste to be converted into fuel using pyrolysis. This a chemical process for breaking down plastic at high temperature – between 300-400℃for an hour – without oxygen.

Co-author Dr Bhawna Yadav Lamba says this process is among the most promising and sustainable methods of recycling compared with incineration and landfill.

“Pyrolysis is the most commonly used chemical method whose benefits include the ability to produce high quantities of bio-oil which is easily biodegradable,” she says.

“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 challenges of PPE waste management and increasing energy demand could be addressed simultaneously by the production of liquid fuel from PPE kits. The liquid fuel produced from plastics is clean and have fuel properties similar to fossil fuels.”

The study is accessible here.