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Tracking the vaccine waste stream

The phone on my desk flickers to show a notification. I am getting my booster shot today. I’m hardly thrilled at the likely side-effects but I realise it’s nothing compared to testing positive for the virus that’s been keeping us hostage for two years.

More than 9.5 billion doses of the coronavirus vaccine have been administered across 184 countries, according to data collected by Bloomberg. This represents about 60% of the world population. My booster was administered by a member of the Dutch military. Although he was in full military costume, he is part of the orchestra and hasn’t seen much field action. This was definitely a new experience for him.

Delivering vaccines around the world is arguably one of the greatest logistical challenges our society has witnessed. And where there is movement of products, there is invariably waste. (Some countries, like the US, even created special stickers to promote people getting their vaccination.) Have you considered this?

At the start of all this madness, I recall reading about pilot projects at local hospitals to collect syringes, gloves and face masks. What has become of these initiatives? Are there any cohesive numbers stating how much has been collected, where, and what has become of the material? Below is a chart of the complete flow of vaccine packaging and transport.

It doesn’t surprise me that accurate figures and ways of comparing global best practice in this niche market are tricky. Almost every country had a different way of dealing with the coronavirus and its aftermath. The same goes for efforts made to clean up the mess.

Revived face masks

There are a few anecdotal developments that inspire optimism. Every month, Welsh company Thermal Compaction Group recycles about 300 000 used face masks which would have otherwise been incinerated or sent to landfill. In its SteriMelt machine, personal protection equipment (PPE) is heated to 300°C to sterilise pathogens then converted into one metre polypropylene blocks with a purity of 99.6%.

Each block is produced from 10 000 masks and the new material can be used to create various products, ranging from chairs to buckets and toolboxes. ‘For every 10 tonnes you re-engineer, you will save on average 7.5 tonnes of C02 emissions,’ says director of operations Thomas Davison-Sebry.

Another win in this segment was scored by engineering students Aleksander Trakul and Mike Ryan who won the James Dyson Award 2021 for their R&D project at the University of Edinburgh and Warsaw University of Technology. Together, they came up with a way to disinfect, shred, cut and melt discarded face masks. They named their system the Xtrude Zero.

How does it work?

  • Mask are placed one-by-one onto a conveyor belt
  • Rolling drums cut off the welded sides of the mask
  • The mask’s three layers are separated in rotating, sandpaper-covered cylinders and directed into different funnels for shredding
  • Shredded material is directed into cylindrical containers and melted, forming a continuous strand of slender fibre known as Filament 5. A rotary blade cuts the filament into individual pellets
  • The pellets are ejected onto a shelf where they are disinfected by UV lights

Imagine the impact if these recycling units were installed on campuses across the UK and Poland. Ryan and Trakul are now trying to secure funding from investors to fine tune their solution and bring it to market. They worry that consumers must be incentivised to recycle and envision a glass encased reverse vending machine type of recycling station installed at city hubs. Users could witness the process with their own eyes, feeling a stronger connection to recycling while earning a reward in the process.

A circular vaccine loop?

A paper in the Journal of Climate Change and Health argues that the first step towards a sustainable vaccination model is to redefine the vaccine packaging process. So the first question is: what materials are involved?

Borosilicate glass is the most widely used material for medical applications (such as syringes and containers) and has been for the last 100 years. This tough glass was created to withstand extreme temperature changes. Its unique characteristics means it doesn’t mix well within the regular recycling stream of bottles and jars, although it can be collected separately and made into new medical products.

It’s a sizable waste stream: an estimated 50 billion glass vials are produced worldwide every year. Meanwhile, the US pharmaceutical industry has developed a ‘hybrid’ vial, described as a ‘multi-layer structure’, consisting of a protective nano-glass layer and a cyclic olefin polymeric layer. It is designed to reduce breakage during manufacturing and be lighter for transportation, reducing the carbon footprint. I have seen nothing on its recyclability, however, and I hope investors take this into account before putting the product on the market.

In response to the pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has come up with detailed guidelines on international vaccine distribution. For example, it advises that each international shipping carton weighs less than 50 kg to curb waste and make handling easier and more efficient.

Furthermore, it specifies that the external surface of insulated packages should be either white or in the natural colour of corrugated carton. ‘Dark colours must be avoided,’ WHO reports. This suggests that deinking will be unnecessary, boosting the recycling potential of the packaging.

Keeping it cool

Vials and syringes are commonly transported in cardboard boxes containing multiple layers of insulation and cushioning materials, including aluminium foil, bubble wrap and other materials specific to chemical and medicine transport. These are hardly the boxes in which our Amazon orders or groceries are delivered to our doorstep. Rather, they fall into the category of ‘cold chain packaging’, meaning they are designed to maintain a certain temperature.

The Moderna vaccine requires long-term storage conditions of -20°C while the Pfizer and BioNTech versions need the even lower temperature of -75°C. One method of ensuring proper temperature is the use of dry ice or cooled water packs (frozen then thawed for long haul transport). The upside of the packs, available in flexible bags and hard plastic containers, is that they can be reused. Additionally, these solutions do not use any electricity.

California-based business Avery Dennison has created a new type of temperature-controlled packaging called ThermaVip+. A special box made from polystyrene and polyurethane features reinforced panels and can safely store up to 58 litres for over 120 hours. Although they are stackable and allow easy assessment of any potential damage, this mixed plastic product may pose a recycling challenge further down the line.  

Smart tools

To maximise safety, WHO recommends monitoring devices in all vaccine shipments to check temperature limits have not been exceeded. Although I understand the need for such indicators (who wants a ‘bad’ batch of the vaccine?), I must question whether or not these are single-use devices.

An example is the card-like TransTracker (see photo) produced by US firm Cold Chain Technologies which changes colour to signal a freeze event, a threshold heat excursion, or that a customer-defined cumulative exposure has occurred. Swiss company Kizy Tracking has created a reusable real-time tracking device, based on the Internet of Things technology. It sounds promising, although I’m curious to see if a take-back scheme exists for this new ‘smart’ tool.

It strikes me as slightly unfair to remark that almost every new solution creates a new problem. As Einstein said: ‘We can’t do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome’. I agree with that sentiment, especially since we typically attack a problem head-on, inevitably forgetting to consider the back-end when all the waste is generated…

Ultimately, it’s simple: the advancements we produce must yield equally sophisticated waste management solutions. Otherwise, we’ll always be one step behind.

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