When the pandemic hit, Abby Whittington was concerned about masks.
Not whether they’d be effective in keeping people safe or about political debates over masking, but about where all those masks were eventually going to end up.
She knew they’d all eventually become trash.
“That was a huge red flag for me because the material that’s used for the surgical masks, the N95s, those are made predominantly from polypropylene, which we no longer recycle in this country,” said Whittington, a professor in both the chemical engineering and materials science and engineering departments at Virginia Tech.
Masks — those that didn’t end up as litter on sidewalks and in parks — were tossed away and ended up in landfills. The pandemic increased other throwaway products, from takeout containers to personal protective equipment that piled up across the country. Whittington noted excessive waste in doctors’ and dentists’ offices — examination table covers made from paper, syringes, single-use equipment, all of it trashed after just one patient visit because of sanitary reasons in order to prevent spread of germs and disease.
“If you think about the chair cover, the covers over the handles that [medical providers] touch, even in the dentist’s office they’ve got the little water suction tip that gets replaced between every single patient,” she said. “There’s just so much plastic.”
Most of that medical waste is considered hazardous and must either be sterilized in an autoclave — a machine that uses steam to kill microorganisms — or incinerated, which can release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But perhaps some products that weren’t contaminated could be recycled, or made from materials that would be biodegradable.
Whittington and a team of student researchers received $75,000 from the Commonwealth Commercialization Fund to partner with NatureORAL Co., a Charlottesville-based startup working to develop biodegradable products, and with faculty and students at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Dentistry to create materials that could replace some medical plastics.
Because most single-use medical instruments such as syringes and other equipment cannot be recycled, the researchers instead looked at packaging materials that those medical products came wrapped in. Plastic packages usually aren’t contaminated, so the researchers worked on creating biodegradable alternatives.
“There’s just so much plastic that’s there and not all of it is going to be contaminated,” she said. “There becomes the space where we can have a conversation about the ones that aren’t contaminated and at least start there.”
The researchers, who come from Whittington’s two departments, are working on a sugar-based film that could replace some plastic packaging, and they could have a patented product later this year, she said.
“We’re pretty close to having a prototype,” Whittington said.
The health care industry produces enormous amounts of waste in the United States. According to a study reported in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics, U.S. health care facilities generate 14,000 tons of waste every day — such as throwaway devices, patient food, single-use protective gear — and nearly a quarter of that waste is plastic that is not recycled. The study laid some of the blame on the Food and Drug Administration, which is motivated by profit and fear of lawsuits related to possible spread of contaminants, the article reported.
“Current regulations, such as US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements for design and reprocessing of reusable medical devices, discourage reuse and motivate manufacture of single-use devices to avoid liability and generate profit,” according to the Journal of Ethics article.
A 2022 report by the World Health Organization revealed that the pandemic only exacerbated the problem of excessive medical waste, which includes needles used for vaccines, test kits and protective gear.
Virginia Tech’s research won’t do much to reduce single-use equipment, but it could cut the amount of nonrecycled plastic that encases that equipment. Whittington said that the packaging industry has a goal of making 70% of its products from recycled materials, with 30% being biodegradable, like the materials being created at Virginia Tech.
Working with Eser Tufekci, an orthodontics professor at Virginia Commonwealth’s School of Dentistry, and two of her students, the Tech team has studied some of the materials used in dentist offices that could be replaced with biodegradable products. Whittington said that when she reviewed commonly used dental plastics sent by Vincent Mascia, president of NatureORAL, she found one that closely matched one of the materials her team had created in the lab.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is what we have,’” Whittington said. “There was this exciting moment of feeling in my hand, we have something like this. We’ve got something that mechanically feels this way.”
More tests are needed to determine that the product provides enough barrier protection and that it degrades properly, Whittington said. After that’s finished, a patent application could be submitted later this year.
Inside a lab in Holden Hall, researchers Selma Gmati, Sarina Krishnaswamy and Aley Savory have been working to develop the new product and determine how to make it available on a large scale.
“We’re making strides in that direction,” said Gmati, a graduate student in material science and engineering who’s from Lorton. “We want to have something that degrades in a safe way made from materials that we know will work. We’ve been developing film samples and making the mechanical analysis whether they can be a replacement for the plastics being used. There’s a bright future in what we’re doing.”
Should the biodegradable film be a suitable plastic substitute, the next step would be to figure out a way to mass produce the product. Savory, one of the student researchers, has been working on that part of the project, which presents enormous challenges, she said.
“It’s hard to wrap your head around the scale required and the machinery that would be needed,” said Savory, a West Grove, Pennsylvania, native who just graduated with a bachelor of science in chemical engineering. “The engineering side of this is to figure out how to take those steps forward and produce possible alternatives in the marketplace.”
Savory said that her research experience will benefit her when she takes a private-sector job with W.L. Gore & Associates — the company that invented the waterproof Gore-Tex fabric — in Flagstaff, Arizona, this summer.
“Being able to make a contribution to sustainability is what I’ve learned at Virginia Tech,” said Savory, who wants to continue working in medical research. “This project has been a great way to wind up my career at Tech and put a little bow on it. I’m glad I was able to make a contribution, and hopefully we’ll see it used in the industry.”