The phone on my desk flashes to show a notification. I’m getting my booster shot tomorrow. I am hardly thrilled with the likely side effects, but I realize that is nothing compared to testing positive for the virus that has held us hostage for two years.
More than 9.5 billion doses of the coronavirus vaccine have been administered in 184 countries, according to data collected by Bloomberg. This represents approximately 60% of the world’s population. My booster was administered by a member of the Dutch army. Even though he was in full military garb, he was part of the band and didn’t see much action on the field. It was definitely a new experience for him.
Delivering vaccines around the world is arguably one of the greatest logistical challenges our society has faced. And where there is movement of products, there is invariably waste. (Some countries, like the United States, have even created special stickers to encourage people to get vaccinated.) Have you considered that?
At the start of all this madness, I remember reading about pilot projects at local hospitals to collect syringes, gloves and face masks. What happened to these initiatives? Are there consistent figures showing how much was collected, where and what happened to the material?
It doesn’t surprise me that hard numbers and ways to benchmark global best practices in this niche market are tricky. Almost every country had a different way of dealing with the coronavirus and its consequences. So are the efforts to clean up the mess.
Revive Face Masks
There are a few anecdotal developments that inspire optimism. Every month, Welsh-based Thermal Compaction Group recycles around 300,000 used face masks that would otherwise have been incinerated or sent to landfill. In his SteriMelt machine, personal protective equipment (PPE) is heated to 300°C to sterilize pathogens and then processed into one-metre blocks of polypropylene with a purity of 99.6%.
Each block is produced from 10,000 masks, and the new material can be used to create various products, ranging from chairs to buckets and toolboxes. “For every 10 tonnes you rearrange, you’ll save an average of 7.5 tonnes of C02 emissions,” says Operations Manager Thomas Davison-Sebry.
Another win in this segment was won by engineering students Aleksander Trakul and Mike Ryan who won the 2021 James Dyson Prize for their R&D project at the University of Edinburgh and Warsaw University of Technology. Together they found a way to sanitize, shred, cut and melt discarded face masks. They named their system the Xtrude Zero.
How it works?
- The masks are placed one by one on a treadmill
- Rolling drums cut the welded sides of the mask
- The three layers of the mask are separated in rotating cylinders covered with sandpaper and directed into different funnels for shredding
- The shredded material is directed into cylindrical containers and melted, forming a continuous strand of thin fiber known as filament 5. A rotating blade cuts the filament into individual pellets.
- The pellets are ejected onto a shelf where they are disinfected by UV lamps
Imagine the impact if these recycling units were installed on campuses across the UK and Poland. Ryan and Trakul are now trying to secure funding from investors to refine their solution and bring it to market. They are concerned that consumers will be incentivized to recycle and are considering an inverted vending machine type recycling station under glass installed in urban centers. Users could witness the process with their own eyes, feel a stronger connection to recycling while earning a reward in the process.
A circular vaccine loop?
An article in the Journal of Climate Change and Health claims that the first step towards a sustainable vaccine model is to redefine the vaccine packaging process. So the first question is: what materials are involved?
Borosilicate glass is the most widely used material for medical applications (such as syringes and containers) and has been for 100 years. This tough glass was created to withstand extreme temperature changes. Its unique characteristics mean that it does not mix well into the regular recycling stream of bottles and jars, although it can be collected separately and made into new medical products.
This is a huge waste stream: around 50 billion glass bottles are produced worldwide every year. During this time, the American pharmaceutical industry has developed a “hybrid” bottle, described as a “multi-layered structure”, consisting of a protective nano-glass layer and a cyclic olefin polymer layer. It is designed to reduce breakage during manufacturing and be lighter for transport, thus reducing the carbon footprint. I haven’t seen anything about its recyclability, however, and hope investors take that into account before bringing the product to market.
In response to the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has developed guidelines on the international distribution of vaccines. For example, he advises that each international shipping box should weigh less than 50 kg to limit waste and make handling easier and more efficient.
In addition, it specifies that the outer surface of insulated packaging must be either white or the natural color of corrugated cardboard. “Dark colors should be avoided,” reports the WHO. This suggests that de-inking will be unnecessary, increasing the packaging’s recycling potential.
Vials and syringes are usually transported in cardboard boxes containing several layers of insulating and cushioning materials, including aluminum foil, bubble wrap and other materials specific to transporting chemicals and drugs. These are hardly the boxes in which our Amazon orders or groceries are delivered to our doorstep. Rather, they fall into the category of “cold chain packaging”, which means that they are designed to maintain a certain temperature.
The Moderna vaccine requires long-term storage conditions of -20°C while the Pfizer and BioNTech versions need an even lower temperature of -75°C. One method to ensure proper temperature is to use dry ice or chilled water packs (frozen then thawed for long distance transport). The advantage of the packs, available in soft bags and hard plastic containers, is that they can be reused. In addition, these solutions do not use electricity.
California-based Avery Dennison has created a new type of temperature-controlled packaging called ThermaVip+. A special polystyrene and polyurethane box has reinforced panels and can safely store up to 58 liters for over 120 hours. Although they are stackable and allow easy assessment of any potential damage, this mixed plastic product can pose a challenge for recycling later.
To maximize safety, WHO recommends monitoring devices in all vaccine shipments to verify that temperature limits have not been exceeded. While I understand the need for such indicators (who wants a “bad” batch of vaccine?), I have to wonder whether or not these are single-use devices.
An example is the card type TransTracker (see photo) produced by US company Cold Chain Technologies which changes color to signal a freezing event, threshold heat excursion or that a customer defined cumulative exposure has occurred. Swiss company Kizy Tracking created a reusable real-time tracking device, based on Internet of Things technology. Sounds promising, although I’m curious to see if there’s a take-back program for this new “smart” tool.
It seems a bit unfair to me to notice that almost every new solution creates a new problem. As Einstein said, “We can’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result.” I agree with that sentiment, especially since we usually attack a problem head-on, inevitably forgetting to consider the back-end when all the garbage is generated…
In the end, it’s simple: the advancements we produce must produce equally sophisticated waste management solutions. Otherwise, we will always be one step behind.
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