Can we curb COVID’s ocean waste crisis?

University of Exeter’s circular economy hub tackles mounting COVID plastic in the ocean

Can we curb COVID’s ocean waste crisis? -- covid waste in ocean

More than eight million tons of COVID-associated plastic waste, including throwaway personal protective equipment (PPE), have been generated globally during the pandemic, with more than 25,000 tons contaminating oceans, according to some estimates.

The volume of medical-related waste represents a “new environmental crisis,” warns Peter Hopkinson, director of the National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research Hub (CE Hub) at the University of Exeter Business School. COVID-19 demand for single-use PPE, he adds, “has set back the substitution and replacement of medical plastic by quite a long way.”

Before the pandemic, the elimination of plastics in the ocean was a top global priority, he says. “Then came the pandemic, and suddenly it is ‘Where do I get my plastic … I don’t care where you get it from. It is a matter of life and death.’”

Like a number of global researchers, Hopkinson is conducting research to put the focus back on strategies to substitute and replace COVID-related plastic products.

Too often, he argues, plastics pollution is seen as a problem for oceans, not the climate as a whole. “People have still not really made the link between plastics and carbon; it’s basically oil,” he says. “When plastic [material] is incinerated as clinical waste, it releases carbon.”

The CE Hub explores business models that minimize reliance on non-renewable resources and maximize reuse of waste materials – the essence of circular economy principles. Since 2020, the CE Hub has worked with Revolution-ZERO, a sustainability focused provider of zero-carbon, zero-waste face masks and gowns, to pilot alternatives to single-use PPE in British hospitals. Initial results show that redesigned PPE can be safely reused 20 to 100 times before being repurposed as medical blankets or insulation curtains, complemented by staff training and special on-site laundry for holistic solutions.

[COVID-19 demand for single-use PPE] has set back the substitution and replacement of medical plastic by quite a long way.”

– Peter Hopkinson, director of the National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research Hub

Earlier this year, for its efforts to devise sustainable alternatives to disposable PPE, drapes and other surgical textiles, Revolution-ZERO was one of 10 recipients to share £1 million in funding from England’s Small Business Research Initiative.

The Exeter-led CE Hub is part of the National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research (NICER) program – a four-year, £30-million investment to move the UK toward a circular economy. In addition to the hub, the program involves 34 universities, 64 senior academics, 42 early-career researchers, more than 60 PhD students and 120 industry partners, all working to coordinate and scale that circular mission. Other related centres are focused on developing circular economy textiles, construction materials, metals and beyond.

Exeter has also introduced a Circular Economy Masterclass – a six-week, online, interactive program for organizations and individuals looking to create and deliver commercial benefits from the circular economy.

A circular economy approach is “perfectly possible, practical and profitable,” Hopkinson concludes. “It saves you a lot of money, there is no reduction in patient safety, and it is the right thing to do.”

Jennifer Lewington is an intrepid reporter and writes regularly on many topics, including business school news.

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