Diverting PPE From the Waste Stream

— By Jennifer Wolanik —

How COVID-19 PPE compliance and sustainability can work together.


Use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in restaurants and retailers is surging in order to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and to keep patrons and staff safe. As a result, businesses are generating even more landfill waste from used PPE, impacting their sustainability image.

Jennifer Wolanik, g2 revolution

The impact of COVID-19 coronavirus on the restaurant and retail industry is undeniable as locations across the nation fight to reopen and stay open during these uncertain times. Customers and staff alike want to feel safe. Owners are striving to comply with critical cleaning protocols and CDC guidelines. The use of PPE is commonplace, alongside social distancing and sanitation measures, and is even expected by customers.

Customers not only need to be safe but to see safe with transparency around prevention procedures. Among the myriad safety protocols, one core implementation by business owners is stocking up on PPE items to protect their staff including face shields, masks and gloves. The items are disposable yet necessary to prevent and reduce coronavirus infection between staff, as well as to and from customers. This helps to mitigate the chance for a potential shutdown of an establishment resulting from confirmed COVID-19 cases being traced to the business.

Used PPE items are thrown into the trash by default and the sheer volume generated by staff alone quickly adds up enough to directly impact any sustainability objectives. Businesses observant of how much waste they generate are seeing the extra trash bags piling up in their dumpsters. This is a critical issue that can drive up disposal costs and negatively impact a brand’s environmental image, especially concerning the global plastic waste crisis.

Today’s consumers are more perceptive to the sustainability efforts of their local establishments, and businesses have become more aware of the negative societal impacts of their waste. Disposal of waste into landfills generates methane pollution and can also disperse toxic pollutants into the local soil and groundwater. The good news is that there is a more sustainable alternative to having your used PPE gear sit in a dumpster to then be buried in a landfill.

At first glance, used PPE might not seem like the kinds of items that could be easily recycled — and that may be true in the traditional recycling sense. What business is going to spend valuable staff time trying to figure out whether used PPE items belong in a particular recycling bin or not? PPE is a catch-all catchphrase encompassing many different product types which, in turn, are made from a wide variety — and sometimes blends — of materials. A face shield may be made from several types of hard and flexible plastics.  A mask may be sewn from natural or synthetic materials while its band may be constructed from an entirely different substance. It can be difficult to cost-effectively break these items apart, back into their original base components, all while protecting workers performing the work.

However, there are ways to safely regain value from mixed, used PPE waste streams. Gear such as masks, aprons, shields and gloves can be diverted from the landfill through an alternative process known as waste-to-energy (WTE). The WTE process converts waste that is unable to go through standard recycling channels into energy — often electricity for homes and business. The WTE process provides a stronger, greener story to your staff and customers that you are keeping these harder-to-recycle items out of the landfill and oceans.

WTE is a growing alternative to landfill disposal. The EPA reports that plastics combusted through energy recovery comprised 16.4% of all electricity generated in the United States in 2017 alone. It is important to note that WTE was originally condemned with scary headlines describing the possibility of releasing unwanted gases into the air during the process. Modern WTE plants utilize highly advanced gas cleaning technologies to remove greenhouse gases that can contribute to climate change. The ability to offset greenhouse gases using combustion with energy recovery is incredibly important. For every ton of municipal solid waste processed as waste-to-energy, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by approximately one ton.

Waste generation from PPE is not going away any time soon, with no known timeline around when the COVID-19 crisis may end. Hygiene is extraordinarily critical in today’s dining experience to help customers feel safe and generate loyalty for future business. Gloves, masks and other PPE will no doubt remain cornerstone safety essentials for the foreseeable future. However, it is incredibly important to understand that a business can be both safe and be sustainable!

Restaurants and retailers that are stepping up to take care of their staff and customers during this time are quickly earning loyalty and support. Make a green tweak and have sustainability play a part of the bundle of mitigation measures that you are communicating to your customers and staff. Recycling efforts can add to your brand appeal and image and illustrate how you went above and beyond to keep your generated PPE waste out of the landfill.

A strong commitment to customers and continuous adaptation is the main formula to get through any type of challenge. Consider also making a commitment to the environment and become a beacon of innovation by creating a new end-of-life story for required PPE items that are currently being tossed into the trash and hauled away. As they say in recycling, there is no such thing as “away” — and your business can be part of the green change during this critical time when PPE is needed the most!




— Jennifer Wolanik is a marketing manager for g2 revolution, a Chicago-area specialty recycler that develops sustainable and innovative Second Life® solutions for retailers and manufacturers. For more information, visit www.g2rev.com.




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