Reviewing ways to reduce the “colossal amount” of greenhouse gases generated by PPE supplied to the NHS during the Covid-19 pandemic
- Over 3 billion pieces of personal protective equipment were used between February and August 2020, resulting in over 106,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents
- Scenario modelling indicated that the carbon emissions of PPE could be reduced by 12% if PPE was manufactured in the UK, 10% by opting for reusable gowns and gloves, and 35% by maximal recycling.
- Reducing the amount of PPE used, such as using hand-washing instead of gloves, may have the greatest effect, cutting carbon emissions by 45%.
According to research by the Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) and Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, over 3 billion pieces of personal protective equipment were used between February and August 2020, resulting in over 106,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. This study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, found that this equated to 591 tonnes per day, approximately 27,000 times the average person's daily carbon footprint during a six month period.
Chantelle Rizan, Sustainable Surgery Fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, and lead author of the study, said:
“We could see on the ground that we were using a lot of PPE within healthcare and that the impact was likely to be large, but it was even bigger than we expected,”
“It’s a colossal amount of greenhouse gases that were generated. We were able also to compare that to normal activity within the NHS over a normal six-month period, and we found that PPE was responsible for an additional 1% carbon burden.”
The study proposed ways in which personal protective equipment (PPE) may have a lower environmental effect in the future. This involves, where possible, reusing gowns and face shields, recycling PPE waste, and producing PPE in the UK.
In a scenario analysis, carbon emissions of PPE could be reduced by; manufacturing PPE in the UK, saving 12% (12,491 tonnes CO2e), opting for reusable gowns and face masks, saving 10% (11,107 tonnes of CO2e), and maximal recycling, saving 35% (79,830 tonnes CO2e), over the six-month study span.
However, reducing the amount of PPE used, such as using hand-washing instead of gloves, may have the greatest effect, cutting the carbon emissions by 45% over the course of six months.
Rachel Stancliffe, founder and director of the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, said:
This paper emphasizes the key message of reduce, reuse, and recycle – this hierarchy means that recycling is “the least best thing that you might be doing.”
She also suggests that we should “reduce what we’re using in the first place, and that would be, for example, washing hands rather than gloves and where possible. Don’t use aprons unless it’s necessary to. And then, if you do have to use them, use ones that are reusable.”