Environmentally friendly PPE in Scots researchers’ sights

PPE face masks

The global use of personal protection equipment (PPE) has skyrocketed due to COVID-19, propelling the industry to revenues of more than £8bn in the UK alone, and although a coronavirus vaccine now seems closer, PPE is likely to remain a part of our everyday lives. However, most PPE materials are single use, contain plastics, are not easily recyclable and end up in our landfills, or worse yet, discarded into the environment.

A contract research project led by James Hutton Limited, will bring together Hutton researchers and industry partners CelluComp Ltd and Halley Stevensons to put a stop to this environmental crisis by developing multiuse, washable, environmentally friendly PPE materials, with funding from Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency.

The project will also address additional pressing needs: the development of completely new PPE materials which offer improved safety and comfort by being highly absorbent, breathable and able to actively kill viruses and bacteria.

Dr Andrew Love, a research leader at the James Hutton Institute and principal investigator of the project, explains: “It is estimated that if each person in the UK uses a single disposable mask each day for a year this would result in 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste, which would be a reservoir of infection, and have ten-fold more of a climate change impact than reusable masks.

“Interestingly, most of current PPE materials are prone to ‘wetting out’ and are poorly absorbent, which raises transmission risks. Likewise, there are very few antiviral PPE technologies readily available in the public domain and those that are suffer from complex manufacturing methods, high expense, poor reusability, poor washability and rapidly lose their antiviral activities.

“It is crucial that new PPE is made from existing waste streams, be multiuse, re-washable, compostable, recyclable and cheap, thereby reducing their environmental burden and supporting the emergent bioeconomy for new products.”

This work builds on the Institute’s existing body of research and patent portfolios with industry partners, while also enabling scientists to identify interesting antiviral and antibacterial properties which will later be investigated to unpick new pathways to control viruses and other pathogens.

Dr Jonathan Snape, Head of James Hutton Institute said “The James Hutton Institute has a long and distinguished track record in plant virology and it is testament to the ingenuity of our researchers that they are able to utilise this expertise to address global issues and make an impact in the real world”

Innovate UK, as part of UK Research and Innovation, is investing up to £191 million to fund single and collaborative research and development projects through their Sustainable Innovation Fund over the next two years. The aim of these competitions is to help all sectors of the UK rebuild after the effects of COVID-19.

The Sustainable Innovation Fund is funding 1,103 projects, 1189 UK businesses and totalling over £130 million in support across the UK.

Innovate UK Executive Chair Dr Ian Campbell said: “In these difficult times we have seen the best of British business innovation. The pandemic is not just a health emergency but one that impacts society and the economy.

“This project, along with every initiative Innovate UK has supported through the Sustainable Innovation Fund, is an important step forward in driving sustainable economic development.”