Millions of pounds of expired Covid PPE heading to the tip
Playing it safe, or another rubbish waste of money?
Expired protective gear worth millions of pounds purchased to fight the Covid-19 pandemic is now heading for the rubbish tip.
One UK waste and recycling company says they have received multiple enquiries to help dispose of huge quantities of PPE safely, including tons of alcohol-based hand sanitiser which could pose a fire risk.
Divert.co.uk, say that they’ve been contacted by hospitals, GP surgeries, large companies, and the suppliers themselves to deal with a mountain of unused and unusable masks, hand sanitisers and protective wear.
“Some people might say it’s an enormous waste of public money,” says Divert.co.uk spokesperson Mark Hall, “but the truth is a little bit more complicated than that.”
What’s going on then?
It’s quite simple – the people in charge of manufacturing and distributing Covid-19 PPE ordered far too much, and much of it is now past its use-by date. The only option is to bin it all, says Divert’s Mark Hall.
The last two winters have seen big spikes in the number of Covid cases and deaths. However, this hasn’t materialised (so far) this year, largely due to the fact that over 93% of eligible people in England have had at least one vaccine, and vulnerable people are still taking precautions.
There are still significant numbers of cases, but the numbers are far lower than previous years. So PPE is still needed, but not so much.
“It’s all a matter of predicting risk,” says Mark Hall, “They planned for the worst, and thankfully the worst – another big outbreak – hasn’t happened.”
While many will see this as an enormous waste of money and resources – and in some senses it’s true – there would have been (literally) Questions in the House if it was needed and not immediately available, workplace health and safety experts told us.
The scale of the problem is enormous, though. Divert.co.uk provided some examples of customer waste collection enquires that they’ve received in the past week alone:
900 pallets of hand sanitiser
At least 250,000 face masks
Pallets of protective clothing such as disposable aprons etc
Hall commented, “This is happening up and down the whole country, and it’s mind-blowing”.
What can you do about it?
The good news is that unused face masks can be recycled, but it’s not a simple process. This is especially the case if they contain metal that helps them keep their shape and protect the user with a good air seal.
Metals, fibres and plastics that go into medical-quality masks can all be recycled, but it’s labour intensive if you’re faced with quarter of a million of them.
The question of unused hand sanitiser is more difficult. Our advice to consumers has always been that small quantities of unused sanitiser are fine to be flushed down the drain and the plastic bottle recycled.
But a pallet of sanitiser contains something like 500 litres (110 gallons) of 70% alcohol-based liquid. It’s a massive fire risk, and too hazardous to be just tipped away. As one commentator puts it, “once it’s in the sewers and vapourised, one spark will blow the manhole covers sky high”.
“That’s why it’s got to be classed as hazardous waste and treated accordingly,” says Hall.
That means specialist treatments need to be used to convert ethyl and isopropyl alcohol into something less harmful. In the case of hand sanitiser, it can be recovered safely into alcohol which can be used as a fuel. This also helps to mitigate the cost of disposal.
“Nothing is entirely straightforward in the world of waste and recycling,” says Divert’s Mark Hall, “and that’s because – quite rightly – you can’t just bury anything that looks a bit difficult to deal with.”
Any further questions?
Question: Can’t it be used for things that aren’t Covid-19 related?
Answer: Yes, and a lot of it was. But there was still far too much to use.
Question: Can’t it just be given to a developing country?
Answer: No, because that would just shift the risk of infection elsewhere. Also, it would be insulting.
Question: Can you deal with this enormous quantity of expired PPE in our stores?
Answer: Why yes. Yes, we can.