Coronavirus PPE Could Be Turned Into Biofuel as Billions of Masks at Risk of Ending up in Ocean

Used masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) could be turned into biofuel to prevent the "devastating" environmental effects of disposing of such items, according to scientists.

Writing in the journal Biofuels, researchers at the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies said PPE is "essential" for protecting healthcare workers. But the "plethora" of PPE kits being used due to the pandemic will make plastic even more of a problem for our planet, the team said.

Polyproylene used to make PPE is a single-use, non-woven plastic, which can take decades to decompose and so ends up in landfills or the ocean, the authors said. A study published last year in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin before the pandemic started found polypropylene was among the most abundant microplastics in Mediterranean coastal waters.

Amid the pandemic, reports have emerged of masks littering the environment. For instance, Gary Stokes of the marine conservation group OceansAsia told The Guardian his team found around 70 masks on a beach on Hong Kong's uninhabited Soko Islands. A week later, he said, another 70 had appeared on a 100-meter stretch of beach. According to a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used each month globally during the pandemic, "resulting in widespread environmental contamination."

The authors of the Biofuels study reviewed existing research on how to re-use polyproylene, and suggested an approach known as pyrolysis may be the best solution.

Pyrolysis involves exposing materials to high pressure and temperatures for short periods of time. This causes the macromolecules to break down and turn into liquid fuel and other substances. Unlike with some recycling processes, materials do not need to be separated before pyrolysis.

The liquid fuel produced from the plastic would be"clean" and have similar properties to fossil fuels, the team said.

The material "can cause a significant threat to the environment in [the] coming months. Pyrolysis based conversion of PP [polyproylene] polymer used in PPE into biofuel can help to overcome this challenge substantially."

They wrote that the method "is an environmentally friendly alternative to incineration and inefficient landfilling."

Lead author Sapna Jain, assistant professor of the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies' chemistry department, said in a statement that using PPE to create biofuel "will not just prevent the severe after-effects to humankind and the environment but also produce a source of energy".

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

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

Co-author Professor Bhawna Yadav Lamba in the department of chemistry at the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies said in a statement that the benefits of pyrolysis "include the ability to produce high quantities of bio-oil which is easily biodegradable."

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A used surgical face mask is seen on the sidewalk in Kips Bay as New York City on July 10, 2020. Researchers believe used personal protective equipment, like masks, could be used as biofuel. Noam Galai/Getty Images