The Need for Reusable PPE

The Need for Reusable PPE

The author’s grandma, Easter Sunday, 1966

Our grandmothers were right. They grew up during the depression and tried to teach us to repair what we had, to take care of our things. When our generation faced a worldwide pandemic we became much more intimately aware that we should take better care of our things, especially the things that stand between us and disease. Our front line workers have had to battle not having the correct PPE and clean isolation gowns to properly protect themselves due to our inability to provide disposable PPE fast enough and in the quantities that were needed. This is the main reason we need to maintain the ‘old school’ reusable gear, as it’s much more readily available. The time it takes to wash a set of PPE is much less than the time to produce it and reusable PPE is also much more sustainable. As we continue to battle Covid-19 and other emerging diseases this shortage could last for years to come according to the Kaiser Foundation.  Worse, reuse of disposable PPE became commonplace during the pandemic, possibly contributing to disease spread.  The CDC has published guidelines for this as well, even though reuse is against best practice.  Using a combination of washable and disposable PPE should help with the shortfall and keep our front line workers safe.

Furthermore, reusable PPE reduces natural resource energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, total water consumption, and solid waste generation. Cost saved in energy resources in the long run makes up for the upfront cost of purchasing the reusable materials with the added benefit of protecting our planet and its resources.

It is critical for reusable PPE to be properly sterilized and tested to ensure it appropriately prevents infection, which is not an easy task. For example, creating reusable respirators poses a unique challenge as many of the materials used are destroyed during typical sterilization processes requiring development of new and better techniques.

Reusable PPE must be developed and maintained in order to retain the ability to protect our medical front line workers. Even without a shortage and global pandemic, disposable PPE is used anytime walking into a contaminated area. This might be a visit that lasts only a few minutes and the gowns and masks are then thrown out leading to tremendous waste. Luckily, the FDA approved the Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System as a method to decontaminate single-use PPE. While this is not a replacement for the development of PPE meant for multiple uses, it is a promising decontamination solution. Now more than ever we can and should prioritize developing and implementing reusable PPE and decontamination technology.

From an administrative point of view, sterilizing a hospital’s worth of PPE during a pandemic can save time and money with high upfront costs but long-term financial benefit. From the patient point of view, it can save lives amid pandemics by providing a regularly replenished stream of PPE. From an environmental point of view, it would dramatically improve our overall environmental awareness and keep millions of pounds of waste out of landfills.

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