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March 21, 2024

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Sustainable protection: Creating sustainable PPE without compromising safety

SHP talks to Dupont Personal Protection about why it is important to develop more sustainable PPE and how it can be done without compromising worker safety.

Most readers will be aware of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs). After all, the HSE/OSH profession has an important role in supporting the agenda’s delivery.

Credit: Alamy Stock

In September, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) published a new report Delivering a Sustainable Future that explains how good OSH management can contribute to 51 of the 169 targets that sit below these SDGs.

One of these goals: responsible consumption and production includes a target to “substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse” (see 12.5).

This aspiration also lies at the heart of a circular economy model where materials and products are kept in circulation for as long as possible, enhancing their value and assisting the transition to net-zero.

Waste and the environment 

While the primary role of PPE is to protect workers from a diverse range of hazards and risks, it can also deliver another increasingly important function, namely helping health, safety and environment (HSE) professionals to deliver the UN’s SDGs when circular economy principles are applied. This is what PPE provider DuPont says it has been doing in Brazil, the European Union (EU) and the United States.

As DuPont’s HSE’s Manager’s Guide to sustainability considerations for PPE explains, the “Covid-19 pandemic brought to the fore the environmental footprint of single-use PPE”, most tangibly in the generation of large quantities of plastic waste.

For example, the World Health Organization’s global analysis of healthcare waste at the peak of the pandemic indicated that most of the estimated 87,000 tonnes of PPE procured between March 2020 and November 2021 ended up in landfill.

PPE waste, however, is only one consideration in a broader picture. The industry is also searching for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the production and transportation of PPE.

DuPont, however, says it has taken steps to help minimise and reduce the environmental impact across its product range, specifically in relation to non-contaminated, disposable garments that are used in the chemicals industry.

“When it comes to PPE, protection of the worker is paramount,” Steve Marnach, EMEA Training Manager & Specialist Critical Environments, told SHP.

“And while it is important that we maintain the protection of the worker, we also need to improve the sustainability of a solution we provide to customers.”

Sustainability across PPE lifecycle

Environmental protection is one of the business’ core values, explains Ariane Biberian, Global Marketing Communications Leader for DuPont’s Tyvek product range.

DuPont’s Steve Marnach

As a result, DPP says it has implemented a series of sustainability initiatives that span the entire PPE lifecycle – from product design and use of materials during manufacturing through to reducing packaging and transportation, and finally recycling (where possible) when the PPE reaches end of use.

The business already runs multiple recycling programmes to give its disposable non-contaminated Tyvek garments a second life through facilities that recycle flexible high-density polyethylene (HDPE) materials.

In November, the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) awarded DuPont’s Tyvek manufacturing facility in Luxembourg PLUS certification. This status provides global recognition that DuPont is developing sustainable supply chains through the incorporation of bio and/or circular materials.

Marnach says that when it comes to recycling these specific products, one of the first steps is to educate the companies that have procured DuPont’s PPE on the importance of segregating contaminated from non-contaminated products.

However, DuPont also has to be confident that the client can segregate disposable garments from other PPE.

“You don’t want to contaminate Tyvek waste with, for example, nitrile rubber gloves. This is a different polymer and this would ruin the recycling of that batch,” he explains.

“We also give them hints and tips on how they can compact the garments [using a baler so they are palletised] to reduce the logistical costs and the environmental impact of transporting the used garments to the recycling facility.”

In the case of the European operation, this recycler is based in Germany and builds on an existing recycling scheme in North America. When the garments arrive, they are consolidated until sufficient quantities have been collected.

The recycling involves shredding the Tyvek garments and extruding the material into HDPE polymer granules, which can be reused as a raw material for other plastic products that can use its specific properties.

Extracting value

This is an important point. Unlike many disposable garment products, which are manufactured using different blends of plastics, DuPont says Tyvek is made of one single polymer – HDPE – so it is easy to extract this valuable material at the facility.

The recycling not only helps reduce plastic waste and cuts down on transport-related carbon emissions, but also helps save the client landfill and incineration costs, adds DuPont.

“At the end of the year, each participating end user gets a report with all of the quantities of garments that they were able to recycle and the positive impact it has on the environment,” notes Marnach.

Importantly when it comes to “circular” considerations, the ultimate goal is to extend the PPE’s lifespan so it can be kept in use as long as possible. Therefore, it is not just about recycling, but also creating more durable products using fabrics that design out waste in the first place.

“A chemical protective garment which is tearing needs to be replaced because you cannot work in damaged garments. If it is tearing, you are increasing the risk and you end up using more garments,” explains Marnach.

“When we are developing our materials we take into consideration that it is not only about reducing the waste, but also about making sure the garments are designed with durability in mind.”

DuPont’s PPE portfolio includes a product called MUSE garments which stands for “multiple use single exposure”. These have been specifically designed so they can be reused a second time as long as they are neither chemically contaminated nor physically damaged.

However, with all this focus on the greater circularity of PPE, is there not a risk that worker protection could become compromised?

Marnach returns to his opening comment that safety remains paramount and can be balanced with sustainable solutions.

“We will not compromise on the safety performance of our products when it comes to sustainability,” he insists.

“When we are looking at developing new materials, we also look at how we can improve the benefits for the wearer. We try to achieve better sustainability of our products by keeping and, if possible, help to increase the safety promise that comes with our chemically-protective garments.”

Packaging considerations

In the drive to make PPE more sustainable, it is also important to tackle packaging at the same time as this can be an additional, and significant, producer of waste.

“We have an option for our most common garment where we have eliminated all of the individual polybags and reduced the paper instructions for use (IFUs) to only one per 25 garments to reduce the amount of paper used,” says Marnach.

Biberian adds that as well as reducing packaging, DuPont has also increased the amount of post-consumer recycled content it uses in its packaging, which has reduced the business’ usage of virgin polymers.

Marnach tells SHP that DuPont has also created QR codes on its products’ neck labels that will allow the end users to accept instructions for use digitally and for many years has published its latest IFUs on its website to reduce paper waste.

As noted at the start, however, it is not just about slashing PPE-related waste. DuPont says that its Luxembourg facility and Spruance manufacturing site in Virginia use renewable energy credits and guarantees of origin to match 100% of the electricity consumed in their operations annually.

The business had set itself a goal of reducing its scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions on the baseline of 2019 by 35% by 2030, notes Marnach. However, because this lofty ambition was achieved in 2022, DuPont has set an increased goal of 50% reduction by 2030.

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