Masks and PPE: a circular and safe solution for sustainable production and management

The research center is involved in a project aimed at bringing out the potential of circular economy in favor of environmental sustainability, related to personal protective equipment.

How to limit the increase in waste due to the extensive use of disposable personal protective equipment (PPE), and consequently their impact on the environment?
Among the various consequences that the coronavirus pandemic has caused, one is related to environmental protection: in fact, the mandatory use of masks for everyone and, for health care personnel, of coveralls, caps, goggles, visors and shoe covers has led to the use of disposable PPE.
It is easy to understand the repercussions for environmental sustainability caused by the production, use and disposal of PPE.

What can industrial research do about this situation? Its activity is oriented to try to improve the quality of life and to find solutions for this purpose.
The research center Il Sentiero International Campus participates in the project “ECOdesign and recycling of PPE in a circular industrial supply chain”, summarized by the acronym EcoPPE.
It aims to identify a broader system, from PPEs design to their disposal, in order to reduce the environmental impact as much as possible.
The project is financed by Regione Veneto for a total amount of 2,029,972.00 euros, of which 141,625.00 euros for the activities carried out by Il Sentiero International Campus.

A circular supply chain in favor of environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability is a widespread topic in many areas, especially in recent years due to the consequences of climate change. The international community is committing itself to limit CO2 emissions, in compliance with what was established by the COP, the “Conference of the Parties”.
The research centre Il Sentiero International Campus has already been involved in initiatives aimed at safeguarding the environment, with a project aimed at the treatment of water, a common good of vital importance.
The environment is also the leitmotif of the EcoDPI project, which aims to study the key stages of a potential circular supply chain for the production of PPE. In particular, the project deals with the valorization of waste from the use of PPE, including those used in the healthcare field, studying the key stages of a potential circular supply chain for the production of these devices (acquisition of raw material and pre-processes, production, use, disposal), focusing on the following specific objectives:

  • to define a sustainable production model for the production and management of PPEs, the absence of which has emerged in the context of the COVID19 pandemic;
  • to integrate specific competencies and production capacities, actually fragmented and dispersed in the territory;
  • produce new knowledge transferable in different areas and other production chains, on issues such as ecodesign, regenerative materials, waste hierarchy;
  • to apply the principles of bio-economy and circular economy in an integrated territorial production chain, in accordance with the Circular Economy Action Plan promoted by the EU, to accelerate the transition indicated by the European Green Deal.

Workpackages and aims of the EcoDPI Project

It is a of 28 months long lasting project and is divided into workpackages (WP), each distinguished by scope: Industrial Research (RI) and Experimental Development (SS). Each WP is followed by dedicated partners who work to achieve a specific goal:

  1. Workpackage RM SRM of synthetic origin for recyclable materials (WP-RI-1): overview of the situation taking into consideration the different PPE and their materials (FFP2 and FFP3 protective masks, surgical masks, gloves, overalls, goggles, visors), analysis of the current recovery/recycling procedures at the end of their life cycle.
  2. Workpackage Biopolymers for Recyclable Materials (WP-RI-2): a bio-polymer (poly-hydroxyalkanoates PHA) extracted from waste substances and organic waste for the production of recyclable/biodegradable/biocompostable PPEs through additive techniques is examined.
  3. Workpackage Product Modification (WP-RI-3): formulates and develops recyclable prototypes, obtained by applying the principles of ecodesign, from the design phase and developing techniques for the collection, selection, separation and reuse/recycling of processing waste and end-of-life products.
  4. Workpackage Pyrolysis techniques for the industrial valorization of PPEs waste (WP-SS-1): it identifies the possibility of a partial recycling of PPEs, recovering part of the materials that compose them.
  5. Workpackage Integrated Solutions Process/Product for Sterilization (WP-SS-2): identifies solutions for sterilizing PPEs waste to make it safe and to dispose them without risk of infection.
  6. Workpackage Production Cycles Sustainability (WP-RI-4): explores the sustainability of production cycles through a predictive simulation model.

Objectives of the EcoDPI Project

The Workpackages develop the follwing activities:

  • WP-RI-1 and WP-RI-3: in these phases the following are identified and developed:

    recyclable materials for the production of PPE,
    – the eco-design of PPE prototypes,
    – the development of processes/technologies for reuse/recovery/recycling,
    – the definition of a PPE waste management system.
  • WP-RI-2: aims at the transition from fossil plastics to biological nature and origin plastics, and therefore biodegradable/biocompostable.
  • WP-SS-1: subdivides PPE composition, to define a complete process not yet consolidated (from incoming control with appropriate packaging and verifiable and traceable labels, to final sale of products and/or energy).
  • WP-SS-2: defines methodologies for sterilization of PPE against Covid19, using peroxide and UVC.
  • WP-RI-4: will lead to the development of a model for the integrated simulation of energy, water, and CO2 impacts of a production cycle, on an hourly basis, and comparison with data collected in the field from corresponding industrial sites.
Example of copper coating on PPE (FFP2) by vapor deposition technology.

Macro Objectives of the EcoDPI Project

The main aim of the project is to investigate possible solutions for PPE production in a territorial supply chain, starting from the available knowledge, resources and technologies, testing pilot products and processes in order to point out strengths and weaknesses.
The structural and regulatory gaps that could block, or not make affordable, industrial investments will be examined.
Further, the project intends to combine different aspects, both productive and economic, always with an environmental point of view:

  • study of the application of circular economy principles to a PPE production chain, able to appropriately selec the RM SRM, evaluating current availability and possible future scenarios;
  • application of ecodesign rules while improving the potential recycling rate and the performance level of the devices;
  • optimization of end-of-life management of PPE waste by applying the rules of the “hierarchy” in waste management;
  • valorization of the waste with chemical/physical recovery techniques to obtain further products with industrial value and energy components.

Partners and role of Il Sentiero International Campus

In each WP, a group of companies and research organizations work together, boasting specific expertise to achieve the expected results.
These are: University of Padua (Dept. of Industrial Engineering, Centro Studi di Economia e Tecnica dell’Energia Giorgio Levi Cases, Dept. of Neuroscience, Dept. of Medicine U.O.C. of Laboratory Medicine, Dept. of Technique and Management of Industrial Systems); Cà Foscari University of Venice (Dept. of Molecular Sciences and Nanosystems, Dept. of Environmental, Computer and Statistical Sciences); University of Verona (Dept. of Biotechnology); Parco Scientifico Tecnologico Galileo (MaTech Division, innovative and sustainable materials); 3Dfast; Agenzia Chimica Italiana; Akkotex; Arte Light; Bellitalia; Chimicambiente; Coccitech; Crossing; Dolomiticert; Elite Ambiente; Filtec; Ilsa; Innoven; Sintesy Plast e Studio Gallian. The EcoDPI Project involves the RIR (Regional Innovative Network) Veneto Green Cluster, Venetian Smart Lighting and Ribes.

The R&D centre Il Sentiero International Campus is leader of WP-SS-2 but is also involved in WP-RI-3.
In WP-SS-2 it studies the possibilities of sterilization of devices to allow the reuse and especially the disposal of PPEs, reducing the risks of virus spread associated with transport.
The activity of the SIC in WP-SS2 aimed at the design and prototyping of systems of sterilization with hydrogen peroxide technology with integration of UVC radiation.
In particular, will be carried out the following activities:

  • process modeling, process “fluids” interaction with PPE (positioning effect, geometries, process parameters correlation vs treatment uniformity, etc.);
  • analysis of the effects both on the “micro and macro-structure” of PPE (e.g. Scanning Optical Microscopy, Electron Microscopy-EDS, mechanical testing on fabrics and plastics, filtration tests, fitting to protected body parts, etc.);
  • functional testing for step by step measurement of properties after treatment cycle.

The activities will allow to evaluate the following aspects:

  • process parameters and sterilization methods;
  • allowed treatment cycles depending on the adopted parameters to inactivate the COVID19 virus;
  • to define methodologies to measure (residual) functional performance of devices.

In WP-RI-3, in the field of PPE surface treatments for the improvement of the devices’ performance, the SIC develops coatings with antimicrobial/antiviral properties.
The activities are aimed at optimizing the deposition parameters, verifying the effectiveness of treatments in comparison with traditional materials, the resistance to bacteria, mold, viruses, water repellency, gas permeability (CO2, O2), washability, treatment duration.

CEM generator, the device for the production and control of peroxide vapors.

The innovative aspects of the ECODPI Project in defense of the environment

The EcoDPI project involves multiple technologies, which bring a high degree of innovation in each phase of the process, from research to production to the final one, that is recycling or the elimination of the single PPE, but always with an eye to environmental sustainability.

The ”Advanced Materials” characterize Workpackage WP-RI-1 and Workpackage WP-RI-3.
In these two phases, activities will enable prototypes of PPE with more sustainable materials and designs.

From the prototypes, we will move on to the next phase, the engineering of the production process, with a degree of innovation that boasts the possibility of using new antimicrobial/antimold/antiviral polymers for the plastics sector. The aim is to produce biocompostable PPEs, reducing the environmental impact caused by waste.

The ”Industrial Biotechnologies” represent a second enabling technology used both in Workpackage WP-RI-2, which exploits the bio-conversion of organic precursors in bio-polymers with high added value through the use of microbial biomass, and in Workpackage WP-RI-3 and WP-SS-2, which provide an interdisciplinary research program that also touches the bio-medical and bio-engineering fields.
Workpackage WP-SS-1 uses the enabling technology ”Advanced Manufacturing Systems”, understood as logistical automation of physical/information flows.

The first part of the research is coherent with the trajectory ”Tools for sustainable supply chain and green energy solutions for manufacturing processes and product life renewal”.

In the second part, the actions developed respond specifically to the trajectory “Innovative processes of treatment and / or reuse of industrial waste”, aimed at the development of innovative processes for the control and treatment of special / hazardous waste and / or their reuse in new production cycles or for energy purposes.

A sustainable whole life cycle

In conclusion, everyone’s health safety is vital but it must be sustainable, both economically and environmentally. The intensive use of masks (to cite the most common example) both in healthcare facilities and in our own lives, has caused a considerable increase in waste. Being able to reuse or dispose of them, in such a way as to eliminate the virus infection, reduces the impact on the environment and on the expenses of companies and individuals.
The innovative aspect of the project is the consideration of the entire lifecycle of a personal protective equipment: to be sustainable, it must not only be reusable or disposable in an environmentally friendly manner, but the design, production, distribution and sale must also be sustainable.

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