A new virus, new waste: the change in health, society and waste production

Ana Santos, Joana Ramos, Mariana Neves & Sérgio Santos, Portugal, 19-21 years old

In Portugal, with the pandemic situation of COVID-19, the need to provide personal protective equipment was imperative for the health and safety sectors. Some companies have adapted their manufacturing processes focusing mainly on the production of visors. The large-scale production of this type of material increased, in turn, the waste produced, forcing the need to find solutions that promote recycling, reducing the possible environmental consequences.

Currently, due to the pandemic situation we are experiencing, several companies have changed their production processes to help mitigate the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. These companies are from different areas, such as the production of alcoholic beverages, textiles, and even advertising articles that, in order to help overcome many difficulties, began to produce protective equipment, essentially masks and visors as a measure of individual protection, as well as gel alcohol, all in significant quantities that would, as far as possible, protect the entire population.

Image 1: acrylic barrier and adult-size
visor (photographs by Mariana Neves)

NG5, an advertising company that has been on the market since 2002, produced 15,000 visors that were distributed throughout the country, donated to various entities, namely hospitals, GNR, PSP, among others. In a pre-pandemic period, the type of waste most produced was paper and cardboard. Currently, the waste generated is polycarbonate (a thermoplastic used in the manufacture of visors) and acrylic (used as a physical barrier between workers and customers in public establishments). With the large-scale production of these new products, other questions arise: (1) what will be the consequences of this mass production for our planet ?; (2) does saving humanity mean harming the environment ?; (3) what solutions are there for the proper routing and recycling of these materials?

Talking to Jorge Neves, from NG5, responsible for the graphic cut, it was mentioned that polycarbonate waste is collected weekly and later sent to France, where it is recycled, in contrast to acrylic that is reused in the national territory.

Although polycarbonate recycling is carried out in another country, the simple fact that it is possible is already an asset for the use of this material, however, it is important to note that during the recycling process, polycarbonate may change its properties. According to a study carried out in Spain, published in 2010 in the Journal of Materials Processing Technology (“Effect of reprocessing and accelerated aging on thermal and mechanical polycarbonate properties”), it is known that its mechanical strength is reduced to about 30% after 10 recycling cycles, which leads to deformation and increased fluidity of the material. These changes can also occur in the presence of high temperatures and UV radiation, so it is essential to inform people who use these materials for the production of personal protective equipment. According to Ronkay and his work “Effect of recycling on the rheological, mechanical and optical properties of polycarbonate” published in Acta Polytechnica Hungarica, the ideal is to keep the composition in 80% virgin material and 20% recycled material, avoiding if so significant losses in terms of properties.

Contrary to polycarbonate, acrylic is a 100% recyclable material, that is, during its recycling process it does not undergo significant changes in its properties, which allows it to remain in the circular market. The reuse of this material benefits not only the environment but the economy of the companies that transform this type of discarded material as solid urban waste into new products such as exhibitors, boxes, and many others, and these companies earn large tens of euros in this process. In Brazil, for example, and according to Globo, “large companies want to improve their image before consumers, for the environment, and they demand that it be recycled acrylic”.

There are also other ways to reuse this material that was recently tendered. In 2019, and according to news published by Jornal T, a creative contest was launched to the creative community by the companies Fibernamics Green, Moldacril, and Seamless, in which the objective implied the creation of innovative products from acrylic and polyester residues, in that the winner received a prize.

Asked whether they would continue to produce personal protective equipment for a second pandemic peak, which according to health officials is a very possible scenario, NG5 said that in the coming months it would continue to produce around 6,000 visors a week.

In short, with the increase in the production of this equipment, there is also an increase in the production of associated waste, which, if this phenomenon is not taken into account, identifying possible solutions, can bring harmful consequences to the planet, which is why it is It is important to raise the awareness of these companies and the population, in general, to the proper routing of this waste.

Image 2: example of eco-label (photo by Mariana Neves)

According to the Portuguese Environment Agency, it is equally important that companies increasingly choose recycled and recyclable materials, also taking into account that regardless of the materials that are used, everyone must have the national or European eco-label. This label consists of a certification that guarantees that the material has a reduced impact on the environment throughout its life cycle.

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