Coronavirus gives the much-maligned single-use plastics a leg-up

Our Bureau Mumbai | Updated on March 19, 2020 Published on March 19, 2020

India is experiencing huge demand for single-use Plastic (SUP) gear used in treating and preventing COVID-19, the pandemic that has gripped the world, triggering calls for a re-think on moves to ban it.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that some 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles will be needed for the COVID-19 response every month while the pandemic lasts. WHO has supplied around half a million sets of protective equipment to 47 affected countries, but these supplies are rapidly running out.

Considering the importance of gearing up to meet the pandemic, the government is preparing to manufacture adequate supplies.

The government, regulators, environmentalists and citizens should recognise the immense utility of plastics ― that too the SUP variety ― and banish the thought of putting a blanket ban on it, says experts. This would require encouraging the industry and providing it with support to meet the demand.

“The use of disposable masks, gloves, gowns, goggles, etc are proving to be big-time saviours of human lives and helping check the transmission of infection from one person to another,” said DD Kale, former professor of polymer technology and Head, Department of Polymer Engineering, Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.

Media reports suggest that coordinated emergency supplies of millions of single-use disposable masks, protective suits, pairs of goggles and gloves are dispatched from the Central Medical Reserves to Wuhan.

In the absence of adequate personal protective gear, people in China have already taken alternate safety gear, such as plastic water bottle jars, plastic sheets, and plastic laundry bags, among others.

These personal protective gear are also made of plastic ― the much-maligned material and used once only ― which will now have to be disposed of systemically and incinerated at high temperature, to avoid any spread of virus.

For decades, plastic has been a convenient and viable material for use in the medical field. And now once again during this pandemic, it has come to the aid of humanity in a big way, saving a huge number of lives.

“Modern healthcare cannot be imagined without the use of plastics. From simple disposable syringes to parts of highly-sophisticated MRI scanners, all have plastics. Excellent barrier properties, low cost, light weight, and durability have enabled the widespread use of plastics in the field of healthcare. Its flexibility and resistance to corrosion have revolutionised the prosthetics industry replacing conventional materials,” Kale said.

“Protective garments like masks, caps and gowns are made from non-woven poly olefinic ― typically made from poly propylene materials. These garments are used by health professionals during such outbreaks to reduce the risk of speading infection as these are non-irritating, soft, helping avoid the spread of bacteria and viruses, and with good barrier properties. These are all designed to be single-use,” Kale added.

“Goggles made from poly carbonate resins are handy for hospitals dealing with coronavirus. One can wear it comfortably for long periods of time, and it blocks 100 per cent UV rays,” he said.

IV bags and tubing, IV Canula and disposable syringes used in infusion of IV fluids are all made from medical-grade plastics to avoid contamination passing into the blood stream. The most commonly used IV bags and infusion sets are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). There are also non-PVC products using ethylene copolymers which have better medical-grade properties but still are plastic. The body and plunger are made from polypropylene and the seal on the plunger is made from polyisoprene rubber.

Where conventional materials like cloth aprons and suits are used, they need to be sterilised after every use, which consumes a lot of time and resources. And, there is always the high risk of improper sterilisation resulting in further infections.

“It is important that plastic items used for disease prevention purposes or otherwise should be disposed of following globally-accepted standards. This is essential to fight the coronavirus in an effective manner,” Kale said.

Published on March 19, 2020

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