COVID-19: 'Game-changing' PPE recycling technology turns masks and gowns into school chairs
The UK is using an estimated 53 million single-use face masks daily and one hospital alone is getting through 10,000 masks a day.
Specialist thermal heating machines which convert used PPE into reusable plastic blocks within one hour have been installed inside five NHS hospitals.
The equipment, developed in Cardiff, allows hospital waste such as gowns, curtains and single-use masks to be turned into metre-long blocks on site.
They are then collected, processed and redeveloped into a range of new products including school chairs and toolboxes.
The machines have been developed by Cardiff-based company Thermal Compaction Group.
Matt Rapson, the firm's environmental director, said: "We are taking what is designated as single-use plastic out of what is a very expensive waste stream for the NHS, reclaiming the plastics and engineering it back into an inert source of polypropylene which is then reused into multiple products."
The machines thermally compact polypropylene, a material widely used in plastic PPE.
St Woolos Hospital in Newport, Wales, Queens Hospital in Burton, Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, Harrogate Hospital and the Royal Cornwall Hospital are all using the machines.
The company says 11 other NHS hospitals are due to receive the equipment, which reduces the physical size of the waste by 85%.
Mr Rapson said: "We have a number of trusts now using our machines and specifically to take out the plastics which have become a huge problem in the current pandemic.
"You take Royal Cornwall Hospital for instance, they're using 10,000 masks a day."
The Royal Cornwall was one of the first hospitals to start using the new PPE machine.
Roz Davies, the general manager of Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust Care Group, said: "We hope this will be a real game changer in the way we tackle single-use PPE, not only for us here in Cornwall but across the UK and beyond.
"The use of masks has grown extraordinarily this year but now we have the option to recycle them, as well as other items such as theatre wraps and gowns that would previously have been transported out of Cornwall for specialist incineration."
Since the pandemic began, tens of thousands of tonnes of PPE waste have been created.
In March last year the World Health Organisation called on governments and manufacturers to increase single-use PPE production by 40%.
One Facebook survey of 4,500 people carried out by tradewaste.co.uk estimates that 53 million single-use face masks are being used in the UK each day - equivalent to around 55,000 tonnes in the 12 months to March 2021.
It's a significant amount of waste - but still a small proportion of the 220 million tonnes of waste the UK produces each year.
Stephen Freeland, a policy advisor at the Environmental Services Association, says although there has been an increase in PPE waste, overall the amount of medical waste has actually fallen due to cancelled routine operations and procedures: "There has been an increase in PPE that we're all well aware of.
"But the waste management system has coped, it's a very resilient system. We are not talking about huge amounts of volumes of material compared to the overall amount that we're handling as a whole in any given year."