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Environmental impact of Personal Protective Equipment distributed for use by health and social care services in England in the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic

By Chantelle Rizan, Malcolm Reed, Mahmood F Bhutta

Posted 23 Sep 2020
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.09.21.20198911

Objectives Use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been central to controlling spread of SARS-CoV2. Here we quantify the environmental impact of PPE distributed for use by the health and social care system in England, and model strategies for mitigating the environmental impact. Methods Life cycle assessment was used to determine environmental impacts of PPE distributed to health and social care in England during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The base scenario assumed all products were single-use and disposed of via clinical waste. Scenario modelling was used to determine the effect of environmental mitigation strategies; 1) eliminating international travel during supply, 2) eliminating glove use 3) reusing gowns and face shields, 4) maximal recycling. Results The carbon footprint of PPE distributed during the study period totalled 106,478 tonnes CO2e, with greatest contributions from gloves, aprons, face shields, and Type IIR surgical masks. The estimated damage to human health was 239 DALYs (disability adjusted life years), impact on ecosystems was 0.47 species.year (loss of local species per year), and impact on resource depletion was costed at US $ 12.7 (GBP 9.3) million. Scenario modelling indicated UK manufacture would have reduced the carbon footprint by 12%, eliminating gloves by 45%, reusing gowns and gloves by 10%, and maximal recycling by 35%. A combination of strategies may have reduced carbon footprint by 75% compared with the base scenario, and saved an estimated 183 DALYS, 0.34 species.year, and US $ 7.4 (GBP 5.4) million due to resource depletion. Conclusions The environmental impact of PPE is large and could be reduced through domestic manufacture, rationalising glove use, using reusables where possible, and optimising waste management.

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