A seemingly world-first collaboration is bringing recycled and reusable PPE visors to UK health workers and NGOs in the Dominican Republic.
The initiative brings together the activity of Heroes, a charity founded by and for NHS workers, and environmental organisation Parley for the Oceans (Parley). The two groups have combined already-established and community-led marine debris and plastic waste interception programmes from the Dominican Republic with a UK volunteer network producing sustainable eye protection.
The raw materials used to make the pellets are intercepted in the Dominican Republic and were made into plastic sheets before being cut into shape and finally paired with a 3D printed headband at Makerversity in London, managed and funded end-to-end by Heroes.
Unlike existing single-use varieties, these visors, produced using Parley Ocean Plastic®, are designed to be completely reusable, providing indefinite protection. In a unique life cycle, marine plastic waste collected from the shorelines of the Dominican Republic will be transformed into upcycled PPE visors and soon returned back to the DR to offer aid and protection to the country’s frontline workers. The visors are made with more robust 350-micron material, which allows them to maintain a longer lifespan and survive the cleaning process, versus its single-use PPE counterparts.
The environmental impact of PPE on the environment is significant and will continue to worsen, especially as lockdown measures are reduced in a variety of regions and with many businesses, such as hairdressers, starting to use PPE on a daily basis.
Non-medical grade masks: A landfill hazard
Due to strict public health measures in the UK, some medical-grade PPE can only be used once to avoid the risk of contamination and the spread of infectious diseases, meaning used PPE products are incinerated at extremely high temperatures and emit unwanted gases. For non-medical grade PPE, which is typically made from polypropylene (a fossil-fuel derived plastic), countless used and discarded products are ending either in landfill or in waterways and oceans, with a significant long-term impact on the oceans and natural sea life.
A study conducted by UCL’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub estimated that in the UK alone, 66,000 tons of plastic packaging waste would be created if every person used a single-use face mask a day for a year. With an ever-increasing focus on sustainability, combating climate change and achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, this partnership will help protect public health and the environment at the same time.
Dr Dominic Pimenta, Co-Founder of Heroes, said: “My personal experience during shifts in intensive care was that eyewear was a surprising area of shortage and I soon realised that throwing away single-use items meant we had even less available, and equally that we were creating a shocking amount of waste. I used one of the visors we’ve created with Parley throughout my shifts in the COVID ICU for six weeks with it showing no signs of wearing out, and I think this will be a breath of fresh air to NHS staff.”
“From the beginning of the pandemic Heroes has believed that the only sustainable means to provide PPE given global demand is to ensure all innovative PPE we fund is reusable. Not only is this a vital practical consideration to maximise supply and protection for healthcare workers, it is critical for the environment. With the pandemic and associated need for PPE both within the healthcare system and beyond going to be with us for some time yet, the environmental impact is worrying and something we must address.
“With a second wave on the horizon, we urgently need sustainable, reusable and safe PPE that protects both healthcare workers and the environment.”
Cyrill Gutsch, Founder and CEO, Parley, said: “Like every major threat to humanity and our future, the COVID-19 pandemic can only be solved with unprecedented levels of collaboration and eco-innovation. With PPE washing ashore on our beaches, we are challenged to find ways to protect each other while continuing the work of protecting our planet and its life-giving ecosystem. These goals are not mutually exclusive. By working with HEROES to create and distribute reusable PPE, we are able to combine our efforts in the fight against marine plastic pollution with the immediate needs of essential workers and healthcare professionals on the front lines — allowing us to move forward against one existential threat without sacrificing hard-fought progress to end another. Through this collaboration, plastic trash will protect lives instead of destroying it.”
Parley has donated 2.28 metric tons of Ocean Plastic® pellets (equivalent to more than 230,000 plastic bottles intercepted in Dominican Republic) to Heroes for the cause, and in association with SHIELD, its sister PPE organisation, will oversee the production and distribution of 50,000 visors, ensuring half ends up in the hands of doctor surgeries, general practices, dentists, pharmacists, and care homes across the UK. Half of the recycled PPE will be returned to Parley later this month, who will distribute the products to NGOs and hospitals in the Dominican Republic. During the process, Heroes successfully connected and funded all third-party manufacturers, including London-based Makerversity, who designed and manufactured the headband section using 70 three-dimensional printers.
According to a statement from the group, Heroes is dedicated to “providing all NHS staff with access to sustainable PPE gear, physical and mental health services, as well as ensuring their day-to-day needs and livelihoods can be maintained in the best possible way.”