Biodegradable medical gowns introduce harsh greenhouse gas discharge

There’s no magic bullet to this problem.

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The growing disposable medical gown consumption due to the COVID-19 pandemic has driven tons of waste to landfills and posed plastic pollution. Investigating the pros and cons of biodegradable gowns over conventional counterparts can guide disposable medical gowns to be environmentally and socially sustainable.

A new study presents environmental and social life cycle assessments of biodegradable gowns to compare their environmental and social performances with conventional ones. It found that biodegradable medical gowns introduce harsh greenhouse gas discharge problems.

Fengqi You, the Roxanne E. and Michael J. Zak Professor in Energy Systems Engineering at the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering said, “There’s no magic bullet to this problem.”

“Plasticized conventional medical gowns take many years to break down, and the biodegradable gowns degrade much faster, but they produce gas emissions faster, like added methane and carbon dioxide, than regular ones in a landfill. Maybe the conventional gowns are not so bad.”

According to the current report, creating biodegradable gowns has an additional 11% higher eco-toxicity rate than conventional options.

Using onsite power co-generation, landfill gas capture and use techniques can cut greenhouse gas emissions by 9.79%, life-cycle landfill use by approximately 49%, and fossil resources by at least 10%.

Cornell doctoral student Xiang Zhao said“Conventional gowns are environmentally and socially sustainable because they can pose 14% less toxicity to humans, cause 10% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and are nearly 10% less toxic to freshwater when compared to biodegradable gowns in landfills with extra gas emissions.”

“Improving the gas capture efficiency above 85% can make biodegradable gowns more environmentally sustainable than conventional gowns.”

“It’s nice to break down the plastic into smaller things. But those small things eventually decompose into gas, and if we don’t capture them, they become greenhouse gases that go into the air.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Xiang Zhao, Jiří Jaromír Klemeš, et al. How sustainable are the biodegradable medical gowns via environmental and social life cycle assessment? Journal of Cleaner Production. DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.135153
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